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Ep 22. Mindsets and educational misconceptions with Carl Hendrick

This transcript was created with speech-to-text software.  It was reviewed before posting but may contain errors. Credit to Jazmin Boisclair.

You can listen to the episode here: Chalk & Talk Podcast.

Ep 22. Mindsets and educational misconceptions with Carl Hendrick

[00:00:00] Anna Stokke: Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor, and your host.

You are listening to episode 22 of Chalk and Talk. My guest in this episode is Dr. Carl Hendrick. He is a professor and an author of several books on teaching and education. I've followed and admired his work for many years. He's extremely knowledgeable about various education topics that I'm really interested in.


So, I was delighted when he agreed to come on my podcast. Carl has written about growth mindset, so I asked him to talk about what the research says about that. We talked about whether motivation is a precursor to academic success or if, in fact, success is more likely to lead to motivation. We talked about whether engagement is a valid measure of learning and whether it's possible to teach generic skills like critical thinking.


I asked Carl how we might define the science of learning and to discuss teaching methods that are in line with the science of learning. We ended the conversation with a discussion on the impact of mobile phones on learning and Carl gives some useful advice for new teachers. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Carl, and I hope you do too.


Now, without further ado, let's get started.


I am very pleased to introduce Dr. Carl Hendrick today, and he is joining me from London, England. He has a Ph.D. in education from King's College, London. He is a professor of education at Academica University of Applied Sciences. Prior to that, he was an English teacher and head of learning and research at Wellington College for 11 years.


And he taught in several other schools in the UK prior to that. He is the author of several books on learning and education, including How Learning Happens with Paul Kirshner, and How Teaching Happens, and What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice. He blogs at, he's very active on X, formerly known as Twitter. He often tweets about research studies, and he's a frequent invited speaker. Welcome, Carl. It's so nice to meet you! Welcome to my podcast.


[00:02:35] Carl Hendrick: Thank you for having me on. I'm, I'm really honoured.


[00:02:39] Anna Stokke: So before we get into it, I'm wondering if you can tell us a bit about your background. What subjects and what grades did you teach?


[00:02:46] Carl Hendrick: I started life, I didn't do very well in school. I left school. I was a musician for a few years. I kind of moved out of where I was living, and lived in the city center of Dublin for a couple of years. Then I moved to London and then I had this really misguided idea that I was going to be a novelist.


So I thought, well, I should really kind of read as much as I can. So, I did a degree in English literature, English and American literature. And I really loved that. And I thought, “How can I keep the good times rolling?” So, I speculatively applied for a PGCE. So, a teacher training degree at King's College, which is a very, you know, prestigious place and just totally not thinking that I would get anywhere near the place.


And I managed to pull the wool over their eyes and got in there. Part of that was teacher placement. So I was put into an inner city, London state school, and I just really loved it. then, after that, I did a master's degree in literature, modern contemporary literature. And then I went back to King's College to do a Ph.D. It was sort of a period of long-term self-indulgence, you know, academic decadence. I was just kind of reading stuff that I was interested in, and then I encountered some cognitive psychology.


So, stuff that was probably like halfway through that process. So maybe three or four years into my Ph.D. I had encountered stuff that I had never encountered before. And that was stuff about the limitations of working memory. I remember looking at the work of Engelmann or, or wanting to find out about education research and really coming from a constructivist background.


And constructivism was the kind of, the kind of sine qua non, like the non negotiable, this is how learning happens, you know, kids learn in groups, they learn through talk, they construct their own knowledge and stuff like that. So then I kind of read some cognitive psychology and just felt, wow, this is like, “why have I not heard about this?”


You know, this is extraordinary that I had no knowledge of this. I remember reading about Project Follow Through and thinking, “Wow, well, that's a big study. That's a long study.” And not quite understanding it. And then reading “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work” which was I think published in about 2006. And I just never heard any of these arguments before. You know, I just had not heard them phrased like that.


Then I had heard Dan Willingham talk, as you know, he's masterful at kind of rendering these concepts and making them come alive. Then that got me to a place of really thinking hard about, “Well, what do teachers need to know? What are the things that they can use in a classroom?”


And that was, that led me then to write a book called What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Where really, I had gotten disillusioned with the language of academia, particularly in education departments, this very obscure, kind of undemocratic language. I kind of saw a lot of academics writing for other academics and not really writing for teachers.


So I was interested in the question of, “What do you wish you knew what in your first few years of teaching and what would help you in that situation?” So then, I was introduced to some amazing people. And then I wrote a book with Paul, then another book with Paul, and and here I am.


[00:06:07] Anna Stokke: You're a musician?


[00:06:09] Carl Hendrick: Yeah, I was in a band, and we had a record deal. This is sort of pre-internet. So this is around 1999, we had a record deal. Yeah. We made an album with a guy called Michael Beinhorn, who was a very well-known producer. He produced like bands like Soundgarden and I think he did an Ozzy Osbourne record.


I think he did a Red Hot Chili Peppers album as well. We were just not really good enough, but we had gotten our foot in the door and we toured a lot and we played with some, big bands and then we got dropped quite rightly by the record label.


And then. Then that's when I moved to London.


[00:06:43] Anna Stokke: So, are you a singer, or what instrument do you play?


[00:06:46] Carl Hendrick: Yeah. Guitar player, singer. But there's nothing now; there's nothing online. Any stuff that was there was kind of gone. But I do have a video of the band at a festival, and yeah, that's going to stay in the vault. 


[00:07:07] Anna Stokke: You encountered cognitive psychology in your Ph.D., as I understand it, so you didn’t encounter it as a teacher. So you hadn't heard of it when you were teaching or throughout your education degree is what we call it here. Is that right?


[00:07:14] Carl Hendrick: That's exactly right. For my PGCE, I had this really great tutor at King's College, and then she was my Ph.D. supervisor as well. And she's just a wonderful, brilliant person. And we, I used to, all the meetings that we would just come and talk about books or music or stuff like that.


And she's just a wonderful, wonderful person, but we kind of had, as time went on, I think I would, I would say we had different views about learning. The stuff that I remember was, obviously, Vygotsky was pretty constructivist in nature. And it was kind of politically inflected as well, I think, which I wasn't really that interested in. 


I was just interested in, you know, how kids learn, how do people learn things and what are the conditions under which you could create that, the best conditions for that to happen and flourish. I was working in a, you know, an inner city state school, behavior was challenging and I was sort of realizing that a lot of the things in the air were not really effective, there was things that were effective that were probably, they weren't encouraged.


So lesson observations were usually, you know, if you had inspectors in or whatever, you'd kind of pull this secret lesson out of the drawer, this kind of Cirque du Soleil, you know, all singing, all dancing, kids running across the room to kind of pinning stuff on the walls and all that kind of stuff. And then you, your day-to-day, you know, to get the kids through the exam or get them to know stuff, you'd use explicit instruction, and you'd test them a lot, and you'd, you know, get them to think about stuff. So, all of those came into sharp focus. And then I think in the last couple of years, what I'm really interested in is just, you know, you have this incredible tradition of research from laboratory conditions about cognitive architecture.


And we're really kind of, in many ways, we're at the kind of, at the frontier of getting that to work in a classroom. Because as, you know, Tom Perry's review from two years ago showed, when you really get down to like, “how does this stuff work?” Like, what are the most evidenced things we have? They're probably the testing effect, retrieval practice, stuff like that.


The studies that are in, you know, ecologically valid conditions in real classrooms, there's not that much of it. So that's the kind of the focus that I'm that I'm interested in. And that's I think a challenge worth working towards.


[00:09:33] Anna Stokke: You mentioned Project Follow Through, and I mean, I was amazed when I heard about Project Follow Through as well. It's something I haven't talked about on the podcast yet, and I probably could have a whole episode on it. But I'm wondering if you mind just sort of telling us a little bit about Project Follow Through, we don't have to get into all the details, but just sort of the gist of it so that the listeners know what we're talking about?


[00:10:00] Carl Hendrick: So it's a study that was done in the 60s where there was a series of different pedagogical approaches tested. And one of them was Engelmann's direct instruction. So direct instruction, as you know, there's a kind of the capital DI and then, and the lower DI, the kind of Rosenshine variety. And the thing that's interesting about this study is that it has a, you know, a massive sample size and it's over a long period of time.


So it was quite a longitudinal study. They measured a whole range of things. So what was, what was really, I think, kind of significant about this study was that the students did best in terms of academic attainment through direct explicit instruction. And, you know, you'd probably expect that. But they also scored higher on things like affect well-being, self-efficacy, you know, stuff like that, which is really kind of interesting because one of the, one of the criticisms of what we might call more traditional approaches is that it's just focused on passing an exam. 


So that study, I mean, there has been criticisms of it in terms of its methodology, but it remains to this day the biggest study we have on teaching. And it kind of stands in contrast with a lot of studies that are, you know, very kind of short term. And yeah, it's a, it's an interesting one. And again, you know, something you don't hear a lot about.   


[00:11:29] Anna Stokke: No, you don’t hear a lot about it, and I mean, it’s surprising. As you say, I think it is the largest educational study ever done. My guess is the reason we don’t hear a lot about it is because some people don’t like the results. But in fact, direct instruction came out ahead of other methods like, there was something like inquiry-based instruction and there was something like, you know, feel-good curriculum. 


[00:11:54] Carl Hendrick: It sort of goes to this idea that, there's broadly kind of two visions of of how learning happens. And the first one is that, and this is what Richard Mayer calls the dominant view of learning, which is that kids learn through discovering things for themselves.


And then the corollary of that is that if you accept that first premise, then it follows on that the teacher should facilitate that process. And the way to do that is through minimally guided instruction. As Piaget said, every time a teacher teaches a student something, they deprive them of learning that thing for themselves.


Which sounds, you know, really nice, but it's a ridiculous assertion. And, we're probably maybe taking that out of context but for whatever reason, particularly in Western education, this idea that to tell or explain things to students is a bad idea. It's just a belief that is so pervasive, even to the point where it was taken as read when I started teaching 15 years ago, that the less the teacher was talking in the classroom, the better. And this was seen as a sign of good practice, to not explain things, to let them discover them for themselves.


And even like in the general public, you'll find these kinds of misconceptions, but you would never apply that to other areas of learning, such as learning to drive. Now you can't imagine stepping into a car and the instructor saying, “Okay, I'm not going to tell you, you know, you're just going to figure this out for yourself.”


My theory on this is that, the kind of TED Talk culture in the last 15, 20 years has really sent that into orbit, but it comes from the basic truth that learning, at its heart, it's fairly boring. We're talking about the limitations of working memory, how information is processed and stored and accessed.


So you have that kind of truth about things. And then you have this other, you know, this kind of sexy view of learning, that's like, that you see obviously on Ted Talks and other fields. And that just travels a lot better. That is just much more appealing to the general public.


And it's this sort of, this idea that there's one causal vector for learning. And it's growth mindset, it's grit, it's this, that, or the other. And the dullness, the kind of, the banality of learning, the actual basics, rudimentary of cognitive architecture it doesn't travel as well.


[00:14:34] Anna Stokke: You mentioned growth mindset and that's something I haven't talked about yet. And it's something I hear a lot about. And you actually have written about this. So you wrote an article called, “The Growth Mindset Problem” the subtitle is, “A generation of schoolchildren is being exhorted to believe in their brain’s elasticity. Does it really help them learn?"


So I'd like to talk about this. So first, can you just tell us what is growth mindset and how is it usually implemented in schools?


[00:15:08] Carl Hendrick: It emerges really in the in the 1980s with Carol Dweck and essentially, it's about one's belief about intelligence. The original idea was that there was an, there's kind of two beliefs, one is an entity theorist, and one is an incremental theorist. In other words, a fixed and a growth mindset.


And if you have a fixed mindset, you believe that intelligence is fixed and that you're either smart or you're not smart, and there's not much you can do about it. And if that's the case. Then why should you kind of, you know, make any efforts. An incremental theorist or someone with a growth mindset believes that effort and failure are necessary steps along the way to success.


And really intelligence is something that you can acquire, something that you can achieve. Now, I would say, I've been reading about this for a long time and I was lucky enough to meet Carol Dweck and to spend some time with her. And I think she's to be admired. I think she's a serious kind of scientist.


When she published her work, there were some initial really interesting findings, and she was criticized for it heavily. And she answered those critics in a fairly comprehensive way. So I think, you know, to simply say, “Oh, this is a myth” or this, that and the other, I think is, is not really fair.


However, my view on it is that it's not so much an intervention as a philosophy. And the idea that you can change your intelligence through effort is a laudable idea. And it's one that kind of, I think all educators should have. Otherwise, why would we do what we do? You know, if you thought that you couldn't affect intelligence. I think where the problem arises is that it's not a pedagogy.


It's not a thing. You're trying to motivate people or change their beliefs. There have been some studies like this. There's a short intervention, one of the more promising ones was, I think, it's a 25 minute online intervention and you see small effects with that, but in general, to kind of summarize the literature, it's quite mixed and you often see varying results. There's been a number of quite large studies, one here in the UK about five or six years ago, you see null effect a lot and no statistical significance. 


So I think it's a kind of a nice philosophy to have, the question really is one of time. If we have time with students, what should we be using that time to do? Like, if a student is not good at maths, then they need probably more instruction on maths. They need more practice. They don't really need to be in a room talking about the plasticity of the brain. Or, as a general rule, I think if you ever see the phrase “rewiring your brain” in terms of education, we should be suspicious of that. 


Yeah, everything sort of rewires your brain. So it's kind of true, but in a, in a kind of superficial sense. It's an important addition to the broader literature on motivation, but again, I think the jury's very much out on growth mindset. But again, it's work that should be taken seriously at the same time.


[00:18:29] Anna Stokke: It’s interesting because I think in math it's actually quite common that people will say, “Oh I’m not, I’m just not good at math.” I actually asked Willingham on my podcast about how much of this is genetic. And he said it's usually, people usually agree at this point and it's around 25%.


There's absolutely a genetic component. Like some people are always going to be better at some things than others. I think people probably can all learn math to like a certain level. So I think we do definitely need to make sure that people understand that for sure you can probably achieve a certain level and working hard is obviously something you want to do. But I guess the issue with grows mindset maybe is that it's just a lot of talk. 


So you can't just go around saying, “Have a growth mindset and you will do well.” There’s a lot of things that have to be there for you to be able to learn math properly, right? You have to be taught well, you have to get good practice and all those things, they probably mean a lot more than just feeling like you could do it. 


[00:19:28] Carl Hendrick: So do you, Anna, would you say that anybody can learn maths to like a fairly proficient degree or do you think there's a kind of an innate aspect to it?


[00:19:40] Anna Stokke: Well, I have to be careful about what I say here because, you know, I don't know for sure. I suspect that most people can learn math to a certain level. There probably is some sort of innate piece to it. But we do want people to try. We don't want teachers to be labeling children like, “You're a math person, and you're not a math person.” What do you think?


[00:20:06] Carl Hendrick: It's interesting because, growth mindset is, it's kind of attacking this idea of innateness, or at least the kind of innate intelligence. When you look at something like grit, you know, Angela Duckworth's stuff, that perseverance towards long-term goals, it kind of maps onto the construct of conscientiousness. Like a lot of critics of it just say it's basically conscientiousness.


And in a way, it kind of turns back in on itself because to what extent is growth mindset an innate thing, like, are some people just born with a better growth mindset than others? You know, are some people just up at 6am, they've got a neat desk, they can work, whereas other people just they just need the deadline to work on it. You know, so, even that is kind of, to what extent is that a heritable trait?


So it's difficult, but again, growth mindset we don't know if it's going to work at scale, but there's stuff that we definitely do know works at scale. And for whatever reason, it's derided.


[00:21:02] Anna Stokke: Also the conscientiousness, the resilience, that sort of thing. It probably has a lot to do with your upbringing as well, don't you think?


[00:21:10] Carl Hendrick: Yeah, absolutely. And I notice growth mindset you often see it inelite public schools or private schools, where you have a lot of students who are going to do well regardless. John Hollingsworth, he wrote a book called Explicit Instruction. And in that book, he talks about this distinction between talent development versus talent discovery. And talent discovery, they're usually the kids who have their essays on the board or they get the, you know, merits and all that kind of stuff.


He says the figure’s roughly maybe 20% of kids are going to do well regardless. They're going to do well, regardless of whether they've got an effective teacher or an effective curriculum or whatever. They're just going to do well. But talent development is about all those other 80%.


And, and that's where explicit instruction is so important because you're not just merely identifying and discovering talent, you're actually developing it and I think that’s a nice idea. 


[00:22:05] Anna Stokke: You wrote a blog post called “Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Teaching,” and I was hoping that we could talk about some of those things, I found that really helpful and interesting. And a big one I want to talk about is motivation. So you wrote that you wish you'd known that motivation doesn't always lead to achievement, but actually, achievement often leads to motivation. So, can you elaborate on that for us?


[00:22:33] Carl Hendrick: Yeah, I kind of came across this in two points. One was Graham Nuthall’s book The Hidden Lives of Learners, which is, I just would recommend to everybody. It's a really short book. I think it was the first time I encountered this idea that motivation and achievement, there's a sort of an inverse relationship to them.


Then there was a review by Daniel Muijs and and Reynolds wrote a book, a really great, another great book called, I think it's called Effective Teaching. It's a review of the literature. And I saw it there again. And then I started to read some studies on this and started to notice that students who achieve things, even in the short term, it tends to have this knock on effect to their motivation.


My theory is that we kind of have the causal arrow the wrong way around. I grew up in a system where you'd try to motivate kids either through intrinsic or extrinsic awards or an assembly or a prize or whatever it was. Whereas I started to notice that, in my own practice, that if you can get somebody to a place where they experience success, even in just a small way and use that as a kind of a lever to move things forward, I noticed that that was a very effective way of doing things. 


And that was really about explicit modelling of things, close feedback, and opportunities for practice. And again, it's one of those things that's very counterintuitive. It's one of these things that the more complex something is, the less it's going to fly with the public and with people in general because it takes explanation. That's one of those things, which I think is, it's a difficult thing to get your head around.


[00:24:07] Anna Stokke: I agree with this, and from teaching for many years, I've observed this as well. And I think, especially in math, which has a lot of applications, I think there's a lot of expectations that we're always supposed to be including applications when we're teaching. But often, the applications are really messy.


And I've observed that in fact when students are unhappy in class, it's not because I'm not giving applications, it's usually when they're lost or struggling with the material. Also, like, my students, the ones that have more difficulty with math, it's actually the application piece that they don't like that much.


I mean, I do motivate with applications. I just think that the idea that applications are going to cause students to like math more or be more motivated to do more math isn't necessarily correct. I think that when students feel success, that's when they feel motivated to do more because it makes them feel good. They feel like they're good at math.


[00:25:16] Carl Hendrick: Yeah, I think there's a lot of students who are going through the day feeling no success at all and not learning anything at all. They're just kind of going through the motions. Again, that’s where, I think, instruction and thinking about instructional design is so important.


[00:25:31] Anna Stokke: And I mean also, you can’t be doing songs and dances and stuff all the time for the students. Like, at some point they do sort of have to understand that learning is something that you should try to do, you should try to enjoy and you can enjoy. Like you can enjoy doing things just for the sake of learning things and acquiring knowledge.   


[00:25:54] Carl Hendrick: Absolutely. 


[00:25:55] Anna Stokke: Let's talk about engagement, and this is a big one. You've written a blog post about engagement called, “Just Because They're Engaged Doesn't Mean They're Learning.” I've also seen you write “Busy classrooms are not thinking classrooms,” I don't know if you're referring to the Building Thinking Classrooms that's sort of popular in Canada here.


But anyway, so can you discuss this? What do you think about engagement?


[00:26:23] Carl Hendrick: So Rob Coe, who is brilliant I think it was his inaugural speech, maybe like, I want to say ten years ago, he had this one slide, he was talking about lesson observations and why it's so difficult and the problems with lesson observations. And this slide was titled “Poor Proxies for Learning.”


And the second bullet point in that slide was “Engagement.” Kids are busy, and so on and so forth. Again, it was another one of those things where I was confronted with something that was, instinctively felt wrong. But I started to have this idea that all of this stuff is about circumventing our own biases and that we're so prone to get things wrong.


I think Michael Shermer has this phrase: “Believe in things that don't need to be believed in to be true.” So I looked into this a bit more and thought, “Well, that can't be right.” You know, engagement is, it's the first thing you need to learn anything. I started to kind of think about it more deeply and notice that, yeah, there's a lot of superficial stuff going on in classrooms, including my own at the time.


I was kind of like caught in this idea of this relevance fallacy that everything needs to be relevant to the students. I could remember in my first year or two teaching someone that I was teaching Hamlet and so on and like having an outside expert come in and say, you know, “Have you ever thought about using hip hop or like Eminem, get them to rewrite the words” which was just a terrible idea.


I mean, so that idea about engagement, I think it's a very kind of misleading idea. But again, that idea is just so pervasive. It's so attractive. The idea that if you do a lesson where the kids are running around and they're really engaged and they're doing stuff that's really fascinating that somehow they're going to learn things. This is especially true with technology. I was noticing that students were like making PowerPoints or, you know, they were, spending an hour on this PowerPoint presentation.


And at the end of it, they'd learned very little about the content, but they had learned how to kind of embed GIFs or whatever into their PowerPoint. 


[00:28:30] Anna Stokke: It’s something to be very wary of, especially if someone tells you that that is the measure of the effectiveness of their program because we actually need people to learn. And that's the important part. And it's not that hard to measure whether someone's actually learned math, for example. So why would someone measure engagement?


Like, why would that be their measure? I mean, they could maybe say that's one of their measures, but the main measure should really always be, “Did they actually learn the content?”


So let's talk about general skills. So you mentioned that you wish you'd known when you first started teaching that there is no such thing as developing a general skill. And you wrote an article called, “Why Schools Should Not Teach General Critical Thinking Skills.”


The idea is that we're often told that we need to develop 21st-century skills or critical thinking skills and that these general problem-solving skills would then be applied to various domains. So what's wrong with that idea?


[00:29:36] Carl Hendrick: When I wrote that article a few years ago, I think the title was something about generic skills and then the editor, when it came out, that was the title and I got a lot of flack for that. I think that it really comes from the body of work on expertise.


And work really shows that expertise is largely domain-specific. at the time, I was encountering a lot of stuff like alliterative phrases, like, you know, the four C's or, which I was really suspicious of as well, because if your whole kind of educational initiative is based on letters that are the same letter, either one of two things is true. It's either an incredible coincidence that all of these things begin with the same letter, or you've just made it up—collaboration, creativity, curation, you know, all this kind of stuff.


There was also, I think I think it's Prensky's idea about digital natives. You know, the idea that in an age of technology curation and all creativity, these are more important than actually knowledge. And then also the idea Sugata Mitra, again, another TED talk, another huge, huge thing.


The idea that knowledge is not important because you can just Google it. Why do we need to know anything when we got mobile phones? You know, kids can look things up. It's redundant to know stuff. We can talk about things like, yes, there are, of course there are generic skills. So, reading, I think there are principles.


So, correlation is not causation is a principle, but it's not really a skill. And even in my own subject of English literature, you find that, you can be creative only to the extent that you have knowledge about the thing that you're trying to be creative with. So even if you say, take the main idea in a text or apply this idea to it or that idea to it without any real understanding of the text itself, even within a domain, so let's say the domain of English literature. 


If I'm teaching Othello, or if I'm studying Othello, I can talk about that, but if it was another play, those generic skills, they're of no use to me because I have nothing to sort of work with. That's another kind of quite counterintuitive idea, but yet you just see this over and over and over again.


Let's not focus on knowledge. Let's focus on kind of generic skills, creativity curation and so on and so forth. It's a very kind of unsophisticated appraisal of how learning happens and what we should do about it. 


[00:32:07] Anna Stokke: So when people say that, when they say, you know, let's focus on teaching critical thinking skills, like what exactly do they have in mind?


[00:32:18] Carl Hendrick: I guess in the humanities, it often looks like taking knowledge and applying it to sort of create something new or something that's original. So it comes from saying, okay, so we can we can look for the central ideas, essential themes in something. In terms of math and science, I'm not quite sure, but I guess in science, there's general scientific principles at work, methods of induction and so on and so forth, but like creativity, we don't even know what that is really. 


It's a very, very slippery concept, to define it, to kind of nail down and even in a domain-specific way. So what is creativity within astrophysics? What is creativity within punk music? What is creativity? You know, it's all so kind of different. And I guess in a broad sense, you can say it's the blending of existing knowledges into something that's new or original, but even that kind of falls apart, that's something that we're seeing AI do now with disastrous consequences. 


Even like if you look a lot of great artists and musicians, like almost all of it is based on a really deep and rich knowledge of the domain they're working in. If you listen to the Beatles’ songs, they've got this encyclopedic knowledge of not just fifties rock and roll but classical music, the blues, and that's what they're drawing on to be creative. Creativity is really important. I spent many years of my life trying to be creative and, more than anything, I'm obsessed with literature and music, but I think to teach it, I think in that way is, is misguided.


[00:33:54] Anna Stokke: Yeah. And I think in math, what they probably would have in mind is problem solving. So solving complex problems, but without actually working on the foundational piece. Practicing procedures and techniques and things like that would be considered rote, being immersed in problems and trying to solve the problems that would be considered developing creativity.


But again, the problem is that if you don't have the techniques and foundational skills, it would be hard to solve those problems and be creative with those problems. I think it's similar, just in a different, setting.


[00:34:33] Carl Hendrick: I often see like Richard Feynman quotes, whether they're taken out of context, I don't know, but they're kind of very much like, “Oh knowledge, facts don't matter,” or, you know, this kind of stuff. Is he misquoted there or is that like - what’s going on with that?


[00:34:55] Anna Stokke: I’ve wondered about that too. You see this Twitter account, right? You see these kinds of things and then lots of people retweet it. I think it could be one of two things. Either they are misquotes or it's the curse of knowledge. I think people forget how much work they had to do to get to the point where they are. 


With Matt Burns we talked about this and he mentioned that also there are just people that it doesn't take them as long to acquire the facts and techniques and skills as it does other people. So they don't actually relate. So my guess is it has to do with these things.


[00:35:25] Carl Hendrick: So is it like, you know, every year when the, when the school results come out and you get some millionaire saying, “I failed all my GCSEs and it look at me now, it doesn't matter.” In other words, they were extremely lucky to get where they were, whereas for 99 percent of people, you know, having good exam results is life-changing.


[00:35:46] Anna Stokke: I think it's a lot like that, we can't all be Richard Feynman. Like most of us actually have to do a lot of work to get to the point where we can be successful. So yeah, I think that's a great analogy. 


On this topic, do you think there’s a science of learning? I've seen some people challenging this notion on social media because we've heard a lot about the science of reading and then there's the science of math. So do you think there is something like a science of learning.


[00:36:16] Carl Hendrick: I think that there is a science of learning. If we define learning as Paul would put it, a change in long-term memory, which I don't see what else it could be. The only thing I would add to that would be a relatively permanent change in long-term memory. And if we take that as our starting point, then there's absolutely things that we can measure. And what, you know, what do we mean by a science? Well, hypotheses that are testable, that are falsifiable. 


And, you know, we've known since the 1950s with George Miller that working memory is limited. We know that long-term memory is, as far as we know, huge, relatively infinite, and that the interrelationship between those two things is hugely important. And also, when we get down to it, we're really talking about information processing. How do, how does the brain, not the mind, the brain process information, encode it, store it, and then retrieve it? That's just the kind of the starting point. Now, I think there's absolutely such thing as a science of learning.


Lots of these things have been tested and replicated. Where I think there's a problem is I don't think there's such thing as a science of teaching. So trying to apply those principles is the challenge, I think. But those discoveries that we've had, maybe in the last kind of 60 years, you know, you have behaviourism in the first part of the 20th century, that was the only game in town really up until the fifties or sixties, despite the fact that you had figures like Piaget, I think Frederic Bartlett’s really important in the 1930s with the schema theory.


But from the kind of 1960s onwards, it's called the cognitive revolution, but you have this massive shift, you have this massive change, and I think that there can be very little debate about those things. We often get criticized, those of us who are interested in this, for saying “Well, learning's about so much more than that.”


And of course it is, but this is just kind of one kind of foundation to base things on. And if you're not basing it on evidence, then what are you basing it on? So I definitely think this is science of learning and the challenge therein, is really to think about the application of that. And that my take a long time, I think.


[00:38:34] Anna Stokke: Okay, so let me make sure I'm understanding this. So the science of learning, if we could define it, so first of all we have a definition of learning as a change in long-term memory, and using the scientific method to measure how that could be done. Does that sound right?


[00:38:54] Carl Hendrick: Right, yeah.


[00:38:55] Anna Stokke: What would be some effective ways to teach that would be in line with the science of learning?


[00:39:02] Carl Hendrick: Okay. Number one, we understand new stuff through old stuff. In other words, we understand new knowledge through what we already have within our brains. If that's true, and if we accept that principle, then we need to give students, we need to furnish them with the knowledge they're going to need to understand new knowledge.


And that's an explicit thing that we can outline. So if you know you're going to teach differential equations, then there's going to be smaller components that you need to build up to that and know what to do. So that would be one major principle. Well, I guess the major, the flagship idea from cognitive load theory is that working memory is limited, it gets easily overloaded and to leverage long-term memory is a way of kind of changing that. 


I think thirdly, memories are a really slippery thing and when we retrieve stuff. we're constantly re-encoding it, we're constantly changing it. it doesn't work like a tape recorder. It doesn't work like a computer where you dredge it up and it's still there as it was, it exists in relation to other knowledge.


So how we use it, how we retrieve it is really important. Then I would say, the steps needed towards a desired outcome often look very different than the desired outcome. So we wrote in our book that independent learning is a bad way to become an independent learner. To take a sporting analogy, you don't win the trophy by saying, “We're going to win a trophy.”


So you often hear in football managers or coaches that are successful, you know, journalists say to them, are you going to win the title this year? And they go, “We're just focused on the next game. We're not even going to think about that.” And breaking larger global skills down into the smaller components, so just focusing on the details of the thing that's next, rather than the kind of end outcome.


So we all want people to be independent learners. We all want students to be working independently. Here's another big thing that never gets mentioned. So people like I'm not going to include myself in this, but like Paul Kirshner, John Sweller and others in that field, there's this caricature of them that they're just interested in explicit instruction, stuff from cognitive science in cognitive load theory, an explicit goal of it is to get students to a place where they are doing inquiry, independent learning, working away from a teacher. It's just that they have different views about how to get there.


And you could argue that the weight of evidence is towards what we might call, in a broad sense cognitivism. So, there, there would be some kind of general principles, I guess, you know, critical thinking, “Well, what are you going to think with?” And you need to think with knowledge. So what are the ways of furnishing students with that knowledge, getting them motivated?


We have a good track record of that. We have some quite good evidence on that. And again, things like the worked example effect, modeling, these are very, very effective ways of doing that, but again, the last thing I'll just say on this is, why doesn't every educator know about these principles?


Just the basics of like the limitations of working memory, all of those things, it's just extraordinary to me how somebody can be trained to work in a public school and teach young kids and never encounter the fundamental mechanics of learning.


[00:42:41] Anna Stokke: So and the worked example effect, that's a tried and true method. I actually think it's sort of seen as old-fashioned, but why would you put these labels on something that actually helps people learn?


 It's so obvious, so in math in particular, I think the worked example effect is really important. If you want to give someone problem solving techniques, what do you do? You model problems, and you get them to then solve a problem like the one you did and gradually you can take away the amount of support you're giving and then the students can solve problems on their own.


It just, it makes perfect sense. So you're talking about worked example effects, scaffolding retrieval practice, those kinds of things, right?


[00:43:30] Carl Hendrick: Checking for understanding, yeah.


[00:43:31] Anna Stokke: And I think it's not even just that a lot of times teachers don't know it. I think a lot of times they're told not to use those methods that they don't work, which is even worse than not knowing it.


[00:43:44] Carl Hendrick: It is extraordinary and I still don't know why that is. I think it's a kind of it's an ideological - I don't know who it was who said it, but a good test of someone who's a scientist would be to ask them things that they accept that are true, but wish they weren't.


And I think there's a lot of people, particularly in education who they haven't changed their mind on anything. They've just started off with a position and despite evidence to the contary, they haven't kind of shifted or changed their mind on anything.


[00:44:11] Anna Stokke: We should mention one last thing just with the PISA data coming out and something that I've seen you write a lot about. In fact, I went back to some of your work just yesterday because I was writing an intelligence memo for the C.D. Howe Institute about the scores. And you've written a lot about cell phones. I've seen you even write that we're going to look back on kids using phones today in the same way we look back in horror at kids sliding around the back seat of cars with no seatbelts in the 80s.


Do you want to talk a bit about the research findings on phone use and how it impacts children and learning?


[00:44:49] Carl Hendrick: Yeah. It's not good. That's the, basic premise. And I should also say I started, this is one area where I completely changed my mind, probably 10 years ago, I was an advocate of using technology and even using phones in a classroom. For my Ph.D., I'd read, I'd spent about two years reading an obscure Russian philosopher called Bakhtin, and I loved it.


And he was writing about Dostoevsky, but a lot of it mapped on to learning in terms of this idea of the dialogic of being in a dialogue with knowledge and the right of world, and it kind of made sense to me that students being in the dialogue through the internet. But what has happened in the last 10 years is that digital devices have been come captured by particularly social media companies who have billions of dollars of algorithms, technology pointed at your head.


Knowing exactly what pushes your buttons. Now, for us as adults, it's extremely difficult, and it's extremely distracting, but for a 12-year-old, it's a disaster. And it's a disaster, not just in terms of attention, focus, learning, we're also learning that it's a disaster for well-being, mental health,


So the idea that a teacher is going to have 20, 30 students in a classroom with their mobile phones and all of the attendant distractions on it. And that that student is going to use that phone in a constructive way, it's just a complete misnomer. I mean, there's some extraordinary evidence, like there was one study showed that a phone that's even turned off on a desk, so even if the phone is turned off when it's on a desk can be, a distracting influence. 


One of the most replicated studies are, a question you often hear is like, what's better in a lecture, note taking or taking notes on a laptop? Note-taking almost always wins out there. You know, if you test the students at the end about what they remember or what they learned, then it's usually the note-taking.  And that, you know, that kind of stands to reason because it's more effortful. You know, as an English teacher and as a lover of books, I think we're kind of losing this ability to just stay with ideas or stay with things. Particularly when I was younger, I would, I would read books for hours and sometimes days.


And when I went to university, I was, I loved it so much because I could just read for, you know, I could read a novel in two days or something like that. And I just loved doing that. And I feel like we're losing that kind of ability to focus in that way. And we're an interesting kind of case study, like, you know, people our age, because we've almost had half of our lives with no internet and the second half of our lives completely saturated in it. 


So we remember what it was like to live in a, in a world pre-internet. Mark Zuckerberg 10 years, well, 15 years ago was talking about how social media was going to bring the world together. And it was going to, create this kind of utopian ideal. And exactly the opposite has happened, really. You can see how social media has been a disaster for us on so many fronts. But for learning, at its heart, it's about drilling down and thinking hard and bringing to bear stuff that you have already, and kind of like just zooming in on one thing and phones are the complete antithesis of that.


I see it myself when I'm on my phone. I try not to have anything on my phone other than just, you know, the bare bones of stuff. But sometimes if I go to a conference or whatever, I have to put Twitter on my phone and it's a disaster. I'm just like, you know, mindlessly scrolling through it.


So think it's very worrying. And I think that if schools have one policy, I think banning phones would be the most important.


[00:48:29] Anna Stokke: Another thing that stood out from that PISA data is just even the distraction of having other people on their phones was strongly associated with lower math scores, which doesn't surprise me in the least. And, in the summer, I went to see the play Hamilton and there is someone in front of me on their phone the entire time.


And you start to get really irritated about it. Like why are you on your phone? And the light keeps coming on and just think about children in a class, even at the university level, I think that university instructors would be wise to have no cell phone policies in their classes - I do. I've told my students why. I use the second-hand smoke analogy like Paul Kirshner talks about, you know, that it bothers the people around you. Even if you're not worried about yourself, you should at least be worried about your peers.


[00:49:25] Carl Hendrick: Do your students have laptops?


[00:49:26] Anna Stokke: No, they don't have laptops. So because they're generally taking notes and most of them wouldn't know how to take the notes in the math symbols, but a lot of them do take notes on their iPads, but most students actually are just taking notes on paper.


[00:49:43] Carl Hendrick: I also kind of worry a lot about my own kids and I have three girls and they're very young. Like I see kids now who are seven, eight with mobile phones, cell phones, and I just think to myself, like “What possible reason can an eight-year-old have to need to have a mobile phone?”


I just can't get my head around it at all. And it's only a portal to bad things really for young kids. So, yeah, I think it's a real worry, but I do think that it's going to be almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle now.


I grew as I'm sure you did as well, where people were smoking everywhere. You know, they were smoking on planes, on buses, in public spaces, restaurants, pubs, bars. Now, you would be shocked to see that. And I think that there's a sort of a wild west feel to mobile phones, the internet and what's available.


And so I think there, there might be some accord, either internationally, where there'll be some kind of agreement with particularly social media companies where they'll, you know, have to kind of step up in terms of their responsibility. And we may see some international legislation for things like age restrictions on TikTok and things like that.


I mean, TikTok is just, it's a disaster for anybody who's trying to do rarefied things, you know, whether that be maths or, philosophy or history or whatever it is because it encourages this incredibly superficial engagement with things. If you're kind of flicking through things, and if you talk to students, they'll all say it like, you know, it's just, it's a disaster for them.


How are you meant to go back to reading a novel or solving a problem or whatever it is after you're doing that. So I think it's a real issue, but Jonathan Haidt has done some really good work on this with Jean Twenge. They've published some things and he has a new book coming out, which I think will be on this topic.


And, you know, he's someone who I think doesn't just point to the problem and criticize it, but he tries to come up with solutions. I think he's a, he's a really interesting voice to listen to.


[00:51:45] Anna Stokke: Last thing, what's your advice for new teachers?


[00:51:50] Carl Hendrick: Think about the things that will really make an impact. So there's lots of things that are probably going to give you marginal gains, but then there are things that will really have an impact. Probably one of those is the behaviour in the room, the climate of the room, as Tom would say it. Whatever you've got to do to get ahold of that and to create the conditions under which students could learn, where they don't feel intimidated by you or by other pupils who are misbehaving or whatever that might be. 


Then I think model what it means to love your subject. I think that's a kind of fluffier way of sneaking in explicit instruction by the back door. I was mesmerized by one teacher in particular when I was probably like 16, 17, who talked about the Odyssey by Homer. And he talked about in a way that really impacted me.


And he would just come in and talk for, you know, 20, 25 minutes. He wasn't that interested in what we thought, but we were interested in what he thought because he was just fascinating. And he would, he would range from, he would talk about Homer and the Odyssey, and then he would kind of talk about wine.


And, like, he'd go in this 10-minute diatribe about what wine meant to Greek society, and then he would talk about Alexander and his campaigns. And we were just riveted listening to this man because he was just so fascinating and so interesting, but above all, he modelled this reverence for knowledge.


Like, it was just this palpable thing. And I learned from him and it spoke to me and obviously it didn't speak to everybody, but it was my first encounter with, “Wow, knowledge is important and reading is important.” And so, think about the impact and model your subject and what it means because if it's not shining out of you, then how are they meant to know what it means to love your subject?


[00:53:39] Anna Stokke: That would be, I think one of the number one things about getting students to like math, display a love for math yourself. Like math is fun. You can just have tons of fun doing it and just try to be passionate about what you're teaching. I completely agree.


[00:53:58] Carl Hendrick: I always wonder, I always like ask math teachers about that because with literature you a way in is to kind of talk to things that affect all people, such as mortality, life, death, love, so on and so forth, characters. You can kind of get into it that way. It was much later in my life when, you know, I just wasn't very good at maths as, as younger, and I kind of got away from it.


And then later on, I realized it's just another language, that it's a beautifully elegant, and sometimes very beautiful language that I just didn't know. And it made me think differently about it. And I thought, I wish I had kind of paid attention when I was younger, but in terms of like, modeling that passion for things like, what kind of things do you use?


[00:54:40] Anna Stokke: Well, the thing that I love about math is that it's really logical. I like logical arguments. And it's interesting because people sometimes say about me, “Oh, you just want children to memorize math,” really, there's not that much to memorize in math. Like I want kids to memorize their times tables.


That's not a big deal. Maybe a few other things and lots of practice, but it's, there's not that much to memorize in math. And that's one of the wonderful things about it. If you're taking biology, you may have a thick stack of index cards and you've got to memorize all these terms. In math, everything's just really logical and every step follows logically from the last step.


And it can be like solving puzzles. So that's what I love about it. And I just try to display how much I enjoy it and that it can be fun to do math. And usually students are happy with that. As long as they're getting good instruction and I emphasize that they have to get a lot of practice and you know, I'm displaying enthusiasm for the subject, it usually goes really well. So I'm sorry you didn't like math.


[00:55:51] Carl Hendrick: No, but it wasn't until I was older that I really, you know, there were certain concepts like, regression to the mean and where I was applying it to different things and they go, “Oh God, that's such a clever kind of way of looking at a phenomenon.” And it was something that I've, that's something that I've worked on in the last few years with statistical analysis and I'm much more interested in it now.


But I think John Sweller, he talked about, because a lot of the stuff in the field of cognitive psychology is obviously done in math and science, I think it was maybe literature he described it as an ill-defined domain. And so one of the questions with a lot of cognitive science is does it work or is it appropriate even to a field like literature or the humanities? Which I think is a particularly when there's so much ambiguity there. So I think that's a, that's another thing that I'm quite interested in.


[00:56:45] Anna Stokke: It has been absolutely wonderful talking to you today and I want to thank you so much. I've been a huge fan of your work, I want to thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. And I understand we're going to meet each other in Toronto.


[00:56:59] Carl Hendrick: Yeah, I can't I can't wait to go there. I'm looking forward to it. And I'm such a fan of this podcast. I listen to it all the time. I'm constantly listening to it. Like when I'm, you know, trying to get my, my daughters off the sleep or whatever. So it's, it's a real honour to be asked on.


[00:57:14] Anna Stokke: Oh, well, I'm honoured that you've been listening. So thank you so much.


More in just a moment. If you are interested in the science of learning and would like to learn more, consider attending researchED Canada, which will take place in Toronto, May 3rd through 4th of 2024. I know I have a lot of American listeners, Toronto is a beautiful city, and we would welcome you there. I will give a presentation there, as will many other guests I've had on the podcast, including Carl Hendrick, Amanda Vanderheyden, Dan Willingham, Tom Bennett, and others.


I will include a link to the conference website in the show notes. As always, we've included a resource page for this episode that has links to articles on growth mindset, cell phones, and other topics discussed in the episode. And I'll include a link to that in the show notes as well. I've got another great episode coming out on January 26th.


If you enjoy this podcast, please consider showing your support by leaving a five star review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Chalk and Talk is produced by me, Anna Stokke, transcript and resource page by Jazmin Boisclair, social media images by Nicole Maylem Gutierrez.

Subscribe on your favourite podcast app to get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on X for notifications or check out my website,, for more information. This podcast received funding through a University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund.

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