When to trust (or not) the experts

Dan Willingham’s new book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education is out. (Download chapter 1 here.)

Every new program claims to be “research-based,” writes Willingham. Teachers and administrators don’t have the time to evaluate everything and there are no credible summaries to help.

 The first half of the book focuses on what cues we use to tell us “this is probably true,” and how they can be misleading.

. . . (It also describes) how when can know when science might help with a particular problem and when it can’t.

The second half of the book gives Willingham’s four-step short cut for evaluating research claims: Strip it (of verbiage), trace it, analyze it and should I do it?


Learning through blogs, social media and games

Brookings looks at How Blogs, Social Media, and Video Games Improve Education.

As Stanford University communications professor Howard Rheingold notes, “Up until now, ‘technology’ has been an authority delivering the lecture which [students] memorized. If there is discussion, it’s mostly about performing for the teacher. Is it possible to make that more of a peer-to-peer activity? Blogs and forums and wikis enable that. So a lot of this is not new, but it’s easier to do [and] the barriers to participation are lower now.”

Alan Daly, at the University of California at San Diego, . . . believes education “is moving away from large-scale prescriptive approaches to more individualized, tailored, differentiated approaches.”

The study looks at how schools are using new technologies to help students learn.

College students are becoming “free-range learners,” concludes a new study by Glenda Morgan, an e-learning specialist at the University of Illinois. Using informal networks, students told her they “shop around for digital texts and videos” that haven’t been assigned in class. They mentioned videos from elite universities such as Stanford and MIT; pre-meds favored the Mayo Clinic.

Teaching reading: Who’s an expert?

Dive right into reading without much “pre-reading” prep. Ask students questions about the text, not about their personal experiences or feelings.  Education consultant David Coleman, architect of Common Core reading standards, wants instruction to stress close reading of complex texts, writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Fordham’s Common Core Watch.

Reading strategies should not be taught as “an end unto themselves,” Coleman believes.

Reading strategies should work in the service of reading comprehension . . . and assist students in building knowledge and insight from specific texts. . . . Additionally, care should be taken that introducing broad themes and questions in advance of reading does not prompt overly general conversations rather than focusing reading on the specific ideas and details, drawing evidence from the text, and gleaning meaning and knowledge from it.

Coleman also advocates re-reading complex texts for deeper understanding.

To that end, Coleman suggests spending three days on the Gettysburg Address—a three paragraph speech. And he thinks Letter from a Birmingham Jail should take six days.

Frankly, that sounds boring.

Teachers reject Coleman’s ideas because he has no classroom teaching experience, notes Porter-Magee.  But perhaps an outsider is needed.

In fact, research suggests that a fresh perspective is exactly what’s needed to solve seemingly impossible problems. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights growing evidence that “big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders,” not the conventional wisdom of the best and brightest in the field.

Did classroom teachers develop the current method of teaching reading? Or did it come from an earlier generation of experts?

Even more important, is Coleman right?

Know-nothing ‘experts’

In a column dissing experts, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the “Dr. Fox effect,” named for experiments in which “an actor was paid to give a meaningless presentation to professional educators,” psychiatrists, psychologists and graduate students.

The actor was introduced as “Dr. Myron L. Fox” (no such real person existed) and was described as an eminent authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior. He then delivered a lecture on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” — except that by design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.

Afterward, those in attendance were given questionnaires and asked to rate “Dr. Fox.” They were mostly impressed. “Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening,” wrote one. Another protested: “Too intellectual a presentation.”

Students learn more from high-content lectures, researchers concluded, but give the same high ratings to “expressive” Fox-style lectures with no content as they do to “expressive” lectures with content.