Junk Science that Infects Teaching

I trained in Swansea over ten years ago. On the whole, I would say that my initial teacher training was good. Now though, I am in a position to sort through the things they taught me into three distinct categories: useful stuff I still do, stuff that is just not for me and WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING?

The last category is interesting. Tom Bennett mentioned at the ResearchED conference on Saturday that one of the catalysts to starting his movement was the insistence at teacher training college that group work was good for all students at all times for all types of tasks.

There was a definite disconnect between what I saw in classrooms during my observations and what they were telling me at college. I was also told to do group work as much as possible. Meanwhile, in the classrooms, group work was limited to the sharing of equipment during practical activities in labs.

The story of me working out how to wield group work as a tool without cutting my own hand is long and would take more than one average 80’s montage sequences to capture. And what I learned was the same as Tom: this message about group work is not universally true.

So, “group work is good for all students for all tasks” was not true. What else did they tell me?

We had several sessions on learning styles and multiple intelligences. Tailoring your teaching for a student’s learning style or intelligence has no evidence for working but plenty of teachers swear it “works”. Why do they think so? Pedro de Bruyckere suggests because teachers are mixing things up, the relationship between students and teachers increases in quality. This does correlate with better learning in the research which leads to confirmation bias. You think it works, it appears to work, you continue to think it works.

We were given a learning pyramid with some neat percentages of how much you retain from reading, listening, teaching and so on. Pedro has an incredibly entertaining story of trying to track down the references for those data. Apparently, it is supposed to be seen as a “metaphor” with no factual base in the literature. How did it get into my teacher training?

All this contributed to was a suspicion of research. From what I could make out, since the stuff I was learning in college was not being applied in schools (or where it was, it was not working better than not using it), then the academics were just idiots who did not know what they were talking about.

It was not until I discovered Hattie’s meta-analyses of educational research that I started to trust academia again. And even then, what he has found out has been distorted and oversimplified for consultants to earn massive training fees in schools.

David Didau gave a great talk on Saturday but one thing that really resonated was how people have interpreted Hattie’s result that feedback gives the greatest effect size (as in, how much students learn compared to students without the particular intervention), so we need to give as much feedback as possible. This oversimplification of the research is coming from a place of sincere desire to make learning better but is missing the nuance of Hattie’s original position that feedback is powerful alright: Powerfully positive and powerfully negative.

There is more! There is always more. Pedro De Bruyckere wrote a book called Urban Myths about Teaching and Learning, David Didau wrote a book called What If Everything You Knew about Education Was Wrong and Tom Bennett wrote a book called Teacher Proof. (On payday, I will be loading up my e reader.)

So how do we keep nonsense out of our heads? We can ask for evidence. We can try to be careful when we attribute cause and effect. We can question what we know to be true. This is hard! Especially since people get really attached to their ideas and see them as part of their identity. Unlearning is not only hard intellectually but also emotionally.

One model I learned in the context of learning how to have productive professional conflict without it turning into personal conflict is the “inference ladder”. I don’t know if it is based on any sort of research, I doubt it, I think it’s one of those “metaphor” things we hear so much about. But. I find it illustrative.


Image credit: pivotalthinking.wordpress.com

We need to be careful about how high up the ladder we get when confronted with new information and not race to the top. We as teachers need to be better at understanding how our minds work, so that we can stay low on the ladder of inference without losing face.


For more:
@researched1 http://www.workingoutwhatworks.com/ Tom Bennett
@LearningSpy http://www.learningspy.co.uk/ David Didau
@thebandb http://theeconomyofmeaning.com/ Pedro De Bruyckere

pivotal thinking.wordpress.com

Apparently, it is a pretty widespread human nature tendency to quickly climb what Chris Argyris coined the “ladder of inference” – to jump from observed facts to conclusions and actions that are largely based on stories we quickly create to explain the observations, and which are biased considerably by our own frames of reference.

Many of us find it very challenging to be maintain genuine curiosity as we quickly leap to the top of the ladder.  Instead, we generally assume that we have all the facts, and our beliefs about those facts are the truth, and that this truth is obvious and shared by everyone.

Have you ever jumped to a conclusion about the behavior of a colleague or loved one, only to find out that you were way off base?

If you have a favorite strategy or reference for keeping an open and curious mind in the face of seemingly inconsiderate or incompetent behavior, please share it in the comments.




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