Piaget, Kahneman, Flynn and Donald Trump

Roger Titcombe's picture

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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agov's picture
Mon, 14/11/2016 - 15:38

What a shock. The better off voted to maintain systems that benefit them. Who could have imagined. Good to see you maintaining the support of Blair and his gang for the absolute right of the rich to blissfully get much richer, give or take the occasional tut-tut about the poor being poor. You would think the poor whose lives have been trashed for the last four decades would be only too willing to let their betters keep on doing it. Anyone who doesn't agree with Ken Clarke (best known for having to be shamed into reading the Maastricht Treaty he had been telling everyone was wonderful - you would think the Euro hadn't been the fantastic success we all know it to be) and the misruling class should not be allowed to vote on anything - they could not possibly be right about anything.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 14/11/2016 - 16:28

agov - You would think the poor whose lives have been trashed for the last four decades would be only too willing to let their betters keep on doing it

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn discussed the election of Donald Trump as US president when he gave a speech at Labour’s south east regional conference in Ashford, Kent.

“We meet after the global wake-up call of Tuesday’s US Presidential election.

“Donald Trump tapped into real problems: stagnating or falling wages, underfunded public services, insecure work and housing, years of being left behind and neglected, frustration that your children’s prospects look bleaker, and anger at a political elite that doesn’t listen.

“But instead of offering real solutions or the resources to make them work, he offered only someone to blame – everyone, that is, apart from those who are actually responsible for a broken economy and a failed political system.

“The Tories do the same. They have opened the door to UKIP and fanned the flames of fear. Nigel Farage blames immigrants, yet offers not a single proposal to put a penny more into the NHS. He actually wants to privatise our NHS, a service that now relies on hard-working migrants to keep going.

“There is a common thread of experience for tens of millions of people in the US and UK. In both countries, people feel left behind: marginalised and disrespected by an economic system that makes them work harder for less, while hoovering up ever greater rewards for a small elite.

“People are right to be angry: our failed economic system is delivering falling living standards and rising inequality. Young people today find it ever harder to get a home of their own, harder to find good secure jobs, landed in lifelong debt simply for trying to get an education.

“We have no idea how Donald Trump proposes to ‘make America great again’, and Theresa May’s Tories offer slogans, but no solutions, for most people in Britain.

“We won’t tackle the damage done by elite globalisation just by leaving the EU. We won’t ‘take back control’ unless we take on the corporate vested interests that control our energy, our transport and have infiltrated our public services.

“One thing is for sure: neither billionaire Donald Trump nor the billionaire-backed Tories have any interest in giving people back control or reining in the predatory excesses of a globalised free-for-all.”

So agov, I agree that the poor in the UK have every cause to be angry, but there is no logic in backing Brexit, which only promises the cranking up of the 'globalised free for all'.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation research concluded as follows.

Over three-quarters of Leave voters feel disillusioned with politicians; two-thirds support the death penalty; and well over half feel very strongly English. Over one third of Leave supporters hold all three of these attitudes, compared to just 6 percent who do not hold any of them. This more liberal group of Brexit voters, therefore, constituted a very small part of the coalition for leaving the EU.

What has any of that got to do with improving the lot of the poor?

How can it not be a failure of education that so many of the poor do not realise that? 

agov's picture
Tue, 15/11/2016 - 14:10

I'm just reminded of the logic lecturer who used to say he was always willing to bet a pound to a penny that you could go through any sociology text book without being able to find a single logically valid argument. Collections of random facts, claims, quotes, preferences, and denunciations leading to the conclusion that was started with do not an argument make. The EU is not a globalised free for all. It is an organised machine that has systematically destroyed the economies of third world countries by in effect forcing them into ruinous trade/aid deals while simultaneously wrecking the economies of many or most European countries for the greater economic good of Germany and in the process has shamefully turned Europe into a global political irrelevance for the first time in four centuries.
What has despising the English got to do with the cost of bats and balls? What has an elitist project benefiting no-one but that elite got to do with democratic legitimacy and economic equity?
Still, never mind. Eventually central banks will have to stop dosing themselves with QE, or debasing the money supply as it has more generally been called historically, and then there may really be some disastrous consequences thanks to the misruling geniuses who so expertly manage to be so consistently and completely wrong about just about everything. Something else Brexit could be blamed for.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 15/11/2016 - 14:30

I agree with much of your analysis, but the 'world of opportunity' heralded by Boris Johnson and his 'gang of three' salivating at joining Trump's 'business opportunity' revolution looks far darker and more unpleasant for the very 'left behind' groups that voted for Brexit and Trump.

agov's picture
Thu, 17/11/2016 - 08:12

Well they obviously don't think so although they are not so dumb, or so ignorant, or so uneducated that they are not well aware of all the times they have been betrayed by the likes of the Blair gang and the politically correct fascist left and therefore maintain a healthy dose of scepticism and waiting to see what actually happens.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 17/11/2016 - 09:44

agov - We can see what is happening already. This morning Damien Green is reported as welcoming the 'gig economy' and the end of permanent jobs with defined hours and conditions of employment, sick pay, paid holidays and a pension. He describes this as 'hugely exciting' and having 'great potential'. This is the remedy that the Trump hugging Theresa May and the three Brexiteers will be prescibing for the 'left behind' that so foolishly voted for it. We can look forward to self employed teachers paid only for 'contact hours' on 'fexible working' zero hours contracts. University lecturers are already facing this future.

At the same time with Trump in the White House  we face a global climate catastrophe, which to anyone with a smidgen of education must be recognised as the top priority for all governments. In the US we can also see coming the end of science education in schools as the Billy Graham admiring Trump bans the teaching of evolution by natural selection and climate science alongside contraception and abortion.

No educated electorate would vote for these things, which is the point of my article.


agov's picture
Fri, 18/11/2016 - 07:38

The gig economy is a phenomenon that has grown up over many years, not just the last few months. There is nothing strange about employers and their Parliamentary fan club wanting it. It is the Left (or what passes for it) that has most directly betrayed its own (former) voters both in the UK and the US by doing everything possible to facilitate it. (Though it is in principle true that with more and more mechanisation and automation there could, with massive changes to the way in which incomes are derived, be very positive outcomes for people's work-life balance and standard of living.) What we do know for sure after decades of experience is that the so-called Left have absolutely no interest in anything other than their own bank accounts, looking after their rich mates, and imposing more and more thought crimes against everyone else. Anything done by May or Trump cannot be any worse than the way things already are and they are the only people who even talk about the devastation that has been imposed on ordinary people over decades.
With Trump the eco-disaster brigade (- almost all of them crooks or sad Marxists who latched onto the climate malarkey as their new home when they were forced to give up on the Soviet Union) may have to justify their environment claims against actual scientists who know what they are talking about rather than just decreeing that tax-payers had to fund their lazy lives for them and no-one was allowed to question anything. Good. You should know that claims about 'science' should be judged by the predictive value of the theory, which in the case of eco-disasterists seems to be about zero - just readjusting everything after the latest falsification is the same as the 'science' of Ptolemy. Trump/May would be right to point to the ruinous and unaffordable costs of the lunacy proposed to 'combat' these claimed disasters. Even on the ridiculous Stern Report's own figures the economically rational choice would be to let the supposed 'disasters' happen and then fix them because by then world economic growth would have easily generated more than enough to afford it.
I'll wait to see what education policy Trump actually adopts in office rather than just take the discredited word of the likes of the Washington Post. Call me uneducated.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 18/11/2016 - 12:55

 When I was at secondary school only 50 or so years ago the carbon dioxide(CO2) percentage in the atmosphere was 0.03. It is now 0.04 and rising.

Life on this planet is based on the balance between combustion, which depletes oxygen and releases CO2, and photosynthesis, which uses the sun's energy, water and CO2 in the atmosphere to replace the oxygen lost by combustion. The balance between oxygen and CO2 has been stable for hundreds of millenia as the planet has become increasingly more habitable. The fact that  CO2 concentrations have risen by a third in just 200 years is a clear sign that serious planetary instability is now taking place.

Life on the planet slowly became more sustainable, varied and friendly to complex life forms like us as the much higher concentrations of CO2 in the carboniferous period and before were gradually incorporated within the earth's crust in the form of oil and coal over millions of years, storing vast amounts of the sun's energy in the process. The release of this CO2 and energy  through industrial exploitation at an ever increasing rate to fuel exponential global capitalist economic growth is the reason for the current climate crisis. It would be amazing if this release of CO2 and energy stored  over millions  of years, in just a few hundred years did not warm the planet. The 'atmospheric greenhouse effect' is just part of the mechanism.

Sorry agov, I can't take a climate science denier seriously. It is like Galileo (and later Charles Darwin) trying to have a serious coversation with the Pope about the obvious fact (even at that time) that this planet was not created by God as the centre of the universe and humans were not especially created by the same God in his own image, different and above the other animals (and plants).

The greedy gods of capitalism now really do hold the future viability of the planet in their hands and the vain and ignorant Trump has just tightened their grip with disastrous consequences as his supporters hail his election as the final delayed victory of the Confederates in the American Civil War.

So I won't be responding to any more of your comments on this thread.  

agov's picture
Sat, 19/11/2016 - 12:50

Entirely up to you what you do with your ball. Fact remains that all your claims are perfectly well known to the actual physicists who don't agree with all this climate alarmism very largely from those who make a nice living off it. At some point you will simply have to try to get over your grief about the horror of horrible ordinary people having defied orders from the misruling classes who have been so wrong about so much for so long. But progress of a sort as obviously you have abandoned all that highfalutin window dressing about Piaget and 'operational thinking' and run off to the Left comfort zone of simple hysteria.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 22/11/2016 - 20:30

I would read your book but you have chosen to marketise it through a privatised corporation. Why is it not comprehensively freely available? Are you being stupid or greedy?

My real point is not really to insult you but to ask you to think about your argument.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 22/11/2016 - 22:22


I was in negotiation with Routledge for many months about publishing my book (with a different title). The publisher seeks independent anonymous referrees. Most of the referees were very favourable, as are the academic endorsements (and the subsequent reader reviews), but one was not, so Routledge declined. I had no luck with other mainstream publishers either. A difficulty is that my book upsets many on the left and the right in equal measure. I make no apology for that.

Professor Michael Shayer, whose work along with Professor Philip Adey (sadly recently deceased) provides the theoretical bedrock of my book, puts it like this.

Are standards really rising or is this an illusion? If teaching-to-the-test undermines understanding, then what kinds of learning promote cognitive development and hence better understanding? Titcombe addresses this question and also analyses the success of Mossbourne Academy to argue how the whole school system should be reformed, rejecting both the right and the left wing establishment in the process. This is some achievement.

Without wishing to overstate my case, I believe I am probably the only socialist education writer that accepts the power and validity of the concept of 'general intelligence' with the vital proviso that it is plastic and susceptible to development through the right kind of teaching and learning, which our marketised education system is rejecting in favour of business training approaches that actually make pupils dimmer.

Fortunately I got to know Francis Gilbert through Local Schools Network and he offered to publish my book using the self-publishing Amazon 'create space platform', so that is the answer to your question.

This turned out to be a very productive partnership because Francis' strong academic background is in the teaching of English, in contrast to mine as a science teacher, so a degree of fresh thinking emerged from our contrasting perspectives. As part of the publishing process the manuscript was substantially changed and improved compared to that which was rejected by Routledge, who were probably right about the original version.

Francis had already successfully published a number of books on the Amazon platform so we teamed to produce 'Learning Matters'.

Francis also set up my website where articles that extend the arguments of my book can be read for free. This has been very successful. In the last year alone my articles have had over 7,000 views from 30 counties on every continent in the world. By contrast a specialist education book, even if aimed at the general reader, can only hope for a few hundred sales, so I am not doing it for the money. However my book deals with complex issues in more detail to make a coherent argument, which is more difficult in the form of separate articles on topical matters on my website and here on LSN.


I hope this helps.



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