'If you want to get ahead, get a theory'

Written by Stuart Twiss - Let's Think Tutor


Alex Black a fellow member of the Let’s Think Forum, re-introduced me to Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Barbel Inhelder’s 1974 paper with the charming title, ‘If you want to get ahead, get a theory’. 

I had first read it a long time ago as a paper about how young children develop an understanding of balance, seeing how small blocks can be balanced across a steel rod. A second reading gave me much more, and something that has real power for teachers developing their practice. 

Please read the paper because I wouldn’t want you to miss out on the way the authors create an elegant activity for young children to try:  the oddly weighted blocks, the sequence of task demands are all very typical of the Genevan School at the time.  And do read the paper because it’s aiming to share a much bigger idea about what happens to our theories of the world when we attempt actions in the world based on them.  

It’s the bigger idea that has captured us and will inform a seminar we are planning about the theories behind cognitive acceleration.  It is a paper about how we deal with the clash between our internal world of ideas and the world itself.  For example:

A person has a theory about the world, their theory leads them to act in a certain way.  Their actions lead to unintended consequences…. what might they do next, what might they be thinking?

A: Keep their theory and act the same way again

‘The world is full of chance events; things don’t always happen the same way. My theory is a decent one but this time, by chance it didn’t work out, I’ll give it another go.’

B: Keep their theory but act differently

‘I know the world well but the fault was in the way I acted, if I try something different in line with my theory then this time it will be OK’

C: Begin to reject their original theory and act the same way again

‘Well, that was a surprise, I must have things wrong about the world. I am going to try it again as before but just look closely at the consequences to see what I need to do to change my ideas.

D: Begin to reject their original theory, but act differently

‘Well, that was a surprise, I must have things wrong about the world. A better theory would be this, I’ll try something new based on my new theory.

The ideal state for a person is to have their theories about the world ‘in equilibrium’ with the way the world is so that there are no unintended consequences brought about by their planned actions.  That way they can plan ahead, making ‘abstract’ choices about their path through the ‘concrete’ world, all the time being aware of the consequences, making the right choices, and not getting any nasty surprises.

‘Equilibrium’ is however a very hard thing to achieve especially where the world you are acting in is complex and where you have had little time and few learning opportunities in which to build your theories about it.  Therefore, we often end up somewhere between A-D in our choices.  

I find myself at A, a lot! I’ll check my pockets for my keys perhaps 10 times before I can finally agree they are not there! 

Sometimes I find I am operating in the realm of C, knowing that I’m wrong but trying to build a new theory by looking closely at the consequences of my actions. I can’t get onto Netflix, I thought it was the internet that was down on my Smart TV but the lights are on the router and my phone works, maybe it’s the battery in the remote control?’ 

When Karmiloff-Smith and Inhelder watched children building and balancing blocks on the steel rod they were interested in this, ‘the interplay between action sequences and children’s ‘theories-in-action’.  They noted that when the child’s theories in action were inadequate in the face of action sequences that ‘failed’ then the child began to focus more closely on the means by which the world was failing their theory.  They also noticed that children in this mode were pausing before acting with their attention shifting from just trying to balance a block successfully to understanding how blocks balance; building their theories as they did so.  They saw that children, ‘must first form a unifying rule based on regular patterns he has observed’ before the shift in thinking could take place.

As teachers we have theories for how thinking may best develop in a child.  We set up our classrooms and act on our theories daily.  Importantly those theories may not necessarily be explicit, even to ourselves even though we are acting in accordance with them.  But do our theories work in the real world and if they don’t how do we face the disequilibrium we feel when our attempts to promote thinking fall short of our expectations?

If things don’t go as we expect as teachers do we pause, look closely at what is happening and use the new evidence of the world to reflect on our theories?  Do we make our theories explicit to ourselves, aiming to unify them to make for a more robust theory based on the observations we have made?  These are the hallmarks of reflective practitioners.  These are the hallmarks of evidence-based practice.

It’s really hard to shift one’s ideas about the world based on what is happening in the world because it can be easier to explain away an unexpected outcome as chance or an aberration than it is to make explicit our theories, undo our mindset, adopt a new theory and as a result new actions.  There is risk in this and as a result we can avoid it very, very persistently.  Karmiloff-Smith and Inhelder saw children attempt again and again to balance blocks using their current theory of ‘balance it in the middle’ despite the block falling off because the real world rule was ‘find the centre of gravity, by feeling the weight distribution, and balance it there’.

Alex and I are going to look at some of our current theories for the positive effect of cognitive acceleration and some of the action sequences that follow from that. We are going to look at how that differs from some of the practices we see.  We’ll consider Piaget and Vygotsky, Dweck, Kahnemann, the relevance of neurological theories, the power of group efficacy after the ideas of Wooley, the learner as apprentice thinker after Rogoff and much more.  All great theories but do they explain the impact of cognitive acceleration, are they put into practice by Let’s Think teachers and what do we do if our theories don’t hold up in the real world?

Of course, A-D are only some of the many ways that people deal with the theories in their head not playing out too well in the real world. The way we have evolved has also given us another option, based on our desire for community and the security of the crowd.

E: Keep our original theory and recruit others to the same theory ignoring the consequences of our actions in favour of group think.

‘I feel better about my ideas when others share them, this feeling is more powerful than the evidence of my actions which in any case can be accounted for by chance or the recruiting of other ideas and explanations. Let’s conspire to ignore what the real world is really like’

Position E is one of the most challenging aspects for us all because it is a position that actively ignores the real world and as a result real world evidence has little power to bring about change. It is also self-sustaining because the group members aim to support each other in both affirming the theory and rejecting the real-world evidence. All are equally invested in the internal logic of the theory rather than the unfortunate evidence of its falsehood.  I remember a time in the 1990’s when theories of ‘Teaching and Learning Styles’ swept through schools and teachers were exhorted to match the curriculum to their children’s preferred styles, and in some cases to test children to ascertain that.  Group think to marvel at began to emerge in schools despite the evidence that this popular raising attainment approach had no effect at all on attainment.  I see the same evidence avoiding group think today in the anti-vaxxers and global warming deniers and in those convinced that private companies will act for the public good.

We in Let’s Think aim to keep alive the debate about what our theory is and the evidence for it, to be explicit about the current theories and to pause and reflect when they don’t play out in the real world as we had expected.  It’s a way of making progress perhaps?

Stuart Twiss