Piaget, Kahneman, Flynn and Donald Trump

After the EU referendum I  wrote an article which began by drawing attention to comments made by Conservative Party elder statesman, former Chancellor and Secretary of State for Education and Science, Ken Clarke MP. He stated that the referendum should never have been called because the issues were ‘too complicated’ to be decided in such a way.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also concluded as follows:

Other things being equal, support for leave was 30 percentage points higher among those with GCSE qualifications or below than it was for people with a degree.

 Many commentators have drawn parallels between the election of Donald Trump as US President and the UK Brexit vote. The educational profile of Trump voters certainly echoes that of Brexit voters.

The Canadian, ‘Globe and Mail’ published an analysis of the characteristics of Trump and Clinton Voters.

The vote laid bare a sharp divide on education. Ms. Clinton fared better among the more highly educated, winning among college graduates and holding a substantial lead among those who had done postgraduate study. Those with high school or less, as well as those with some college, preferred Mr. Trump by healthy margins. According to Pew Research, Mr. Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree, 67 per cent to 28 per cent, is the largest since the election of 1980.

 In my Brexit article, I argued that the immigration issue was ‘one dimensional’: less immigration = GOOD; more immigration = BAD. Readers of my articles and my book will know that I believe that Jean Piaget was essentially correct in his description of the hierarchy of stages of cognitive sophistication that are involved in learning and that the understanding of one dimensional variation characterises the ‘concrete operational’ stage. You can think of it like the ‘slider’ on your computer screen that you can move up or down to increase or decrease the sound volume.

In contrast, economic issues are more complex, multi-dimensional  and are likely to require Piaget’s ‘formal operational ‘ thinking ability if they are to be comprehended. Even if this were not so, the ability to make rational sense of full access to the EU Single Market where full access = GOOD, less access = BAD, at the same time as the immigration dimension, inevitably makes EU withdrawal a ‘multi-dimensional’ problem that requires Piaget’s, ‘formal operational’ stage of cognitive ability.

The link with educational attainment is clear. To successfully progress to 16+ academic qualifications also requires formal operational thinking. Since higher academic qualifications usually result in better paid employment in the both the UK and the US, the link between voting patterns and relative affluence is also explained.

Daniel Kahneman’s relevance comes from his assertion that humans have two discrete modes of thinking that he refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a result of human evolution and is to a major extent written into the human genome. It is the ‘fast thinking’ that is linked to survival in evolutionary terms. It is very good at solving certain kinds of problems very rapidly but frequently fails spectacularly with complex problems associated with scientific and mathematical concepts for which millions of years of evolution have not prepared us, other than giving us large brains with a highly flexible cerebral cortex. Kahneman describes System 1 as “a machine for jumping to conclusions”.

System 1, ‘fast thinking’ corresponds to Piaget’s ‘concrete operational’ thinking. Kahneman’s System 2, ‘slow thinking’, is a product of developmental education. It corresponds to Piaget’s ‘formal operational stage of cognitive development’. College educated adults are likely to have the ability to address a problem through their System 2 thinking ability. A significant proportion of adults never develop their cognitive ability to the formal operational/System 2 level. Even those adults that do possess System 2 thinking ability, often do not use it.

Kahneman gives this, now famous, example.

 A bat and ball costs £1.10 in total.

The bat costs one pound more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

System 1 usually evokes an instant answer of 10p from everybody, including formally capable mathematicians, which is incorrect. The correct solution requires the conscious deployments of slow thinking that Kahneman refers to as System 2. Everybody has a System 1, primed for action, but it is also the default instant reaction of well educated adults that fail to consciously apply their System 2 ability and ‘jump to a conclusion’.

To find the correct solution to Kahneman’s puzzle and understand why it is so educationally important, see this article.

James Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in the academic study of intelligence. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. It is the name given to the large year on year increases in IQ scores that took place in all developed countries during the twentieth century, but which now appears in some to have gone into reverse (the anti-Flynn effect).

Flynn now rejects the pessimistic notion that IQ is fixed at birth and largely stable over a lifetime. He argues that intelligence can be changed positively and negatively through ‘human autonomy’, by which he means the life decisions open to individuals in adulthood.

Flynn is now arguing that intelligence is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by most academics that study intelligence.

Although he appears not to have given much thought to the role of school pedagogy, he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  In his latest book he writes as follows.

My analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives!

 University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

“I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 If, as Flynn asserts, intelligence remains plastic throughout adulthood then it is surely even more plastic though the school years. The central argument of my book, Learning Matters, supported by data from real school case studies, is that since the 1988 Education Reform Act our schools have been driven by league table competition in the opposite direction to teaching for cognitive development and this has impeded the development of plastic intelligence in our pupils.

Whereas it is the least able that stand to gain the most from improvements in their cognitive ability it is these pupils that have been most likely denied such opportunity on account of suffering degraded teaching at KS1, KS2 and KS4 as teachers have been forced to pursue the SATs L4 and the GCSE ‘C’ grade results needed for the survival of their schools, above all other educational considerations.

By compelling schools to be subject to a market in school choice, exercised by parents on the basis of simplistic school performance indicators in the context of privatised examination boards competing to sell their exams, school curriculum and teaching methods have become degraded resulting in a significant real decline in educational standards despite the illusion of school improvement. The irony is that the 2010 Conservative-led coalition government under Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove had, unlike his New Labour predecessors, recognised this decline but Gove and his successor have been ideologically and disastrously blind to its causes. See my article about the anti-Flynn effect here

 Much current teaching in schools that is commonly believed by the government to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ because it is ‘teaching to the test’ and does not produce cognitive growth.

Why has this happened? It is a consequence of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that now dominates the English Education system.

The relevance to the election of Donald Trump is that GERM originated under President G W Bush in the US in the form of an ideologically neoliberal marketised education system characterised by the ‘Charter Schools’ movement. Tony Blair accepted this ideology and paved the way for it to be imposed on the English education system, through ‘Academisation’.

GERM results in the abandonment of teaching methods that develop cognitive ability in favour of methods that are more effective in meeting the narrow exam performance criteria needed to drive the market in school choice. In the English system this has meant the high stakes SATs L4 and GCSE C grades that have been artificially and arbitrarily chosen as performance indicators for parents to choose schools.

GERM favours behaviourist teaching methods based on the rote learning of facts.

Cognitive development, however, is secured through developmental approaches to teaching and learning. Cognitive gains are achieved through a pedagogic culture that celebrates and builds on mistakes rather than incentivising success and punishing failure. This approach is maligned in the US and English GERM culture as ‘progressivism’ and has been discouraged in our schools by successive governments.

The US had a head start on us with GERM and has been degrading the US education system for the last three decades as noted by the American educational blogger, Nancy Bailey.

I began this article by drawing attention to the link between education and the way people have voted in the UK EU referendum and in the US presidential election. I have just watched Jeremy Corbyn on the Andrew Marr show blaming Brexit and the election of Donald Trump on the failed economic policies of austerity giving rise to the angry and alienated ‘left behind’ in the former industrial areas of the UK and US. He is not wrong about this, but he is failing to also recognise that these ‘left behind’ voters are still coming to irrational false conclusions and giving powerful effect to them in the ballot box; the one place in Western democracies where we really are all equal.

Irrationality and prejudice are a consequence of the failure of education. This failure is not one of school students failing to meet government imposed exam result targets in sufficient numbers, but a much deeper one concerning the degradation of the quality of learning resulting from that very domination of schooling by marketisation.

This degradation is captured by the ‘anti-Flynn Effect’, where the cognitive development of our school students has been inhibited such that an increasing proportion lack the cognitive sophistication needed to see through the right wing populism that is currently riding a wave in the UK and the US. The following changes to our education system need to be made.

  1. All school students at all levels of cognitive ability, at all ages, must receive the same high quality, broad and balanced education. C grades at GCSE (or the new equivalents) that drive market success for schools must not distort the curriculum and educational quality of provision. Because everybody has equal power in the ballot box, all of our children are entitled to the equal quality of education needed to make rational democratic decisions.
  2. It is therefore obvious that academically selective secondary schools must be brought within a comprehensive system driven by the need to maximise the cognitive (and other) development of every student.

So although the rise of right wing populism in the UK and the US has many complex causes it is facilitated in both countries by corruption of the education systems through marketisation and privatisation. Following  Brexit and the election of Trump this is only likely to be further promoted. Therefore my book, Learning Matters, is not just relevant to saving the English Education system, but also for combating the future threat to liberal democracy exemplified by these political shocks.


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