Teachers vs. bad research, evidence-free fads

Tom Bennett’s new book, Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What it Claims, and What You Can Do about It, is the work of “one pissed off teacher,” writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

Cover edit 3

Bennett, who’s taught in Britain for 10 years, feels cheated of the time he’s spent in training sessions urged to adopt some “evidence-free theory” and cheated of respect as “researchers with no classroom experience presume to tell him his job, and blame him (or his students) if their magic beans don’t grow a beanstalk.” Researchers are actively getting in his way, to the extent “their cockamamie ideas infect districts and schools,” Bennett believes.

Social sciences aspire to the precision of the “hard” sciences but are just “walking around in mother’s heels and pearls,” he charges.

His advice: “Researchers need to take a good long look in the mirror; media outlets need to be less gullible and  teachers should appear to comply with the district’s latest lunacy, but once the door closes stick to the basics.”

Willingham writes:

This section offers a merciless, overdue, and often funny skewering of speculative ideas in education: multiple intelligences, Brain Gym, group work, emotional intelligence, 21st century skills, technology in education, learning styles, learning through games. Bennett has a unerring eye for the two key problems in these fads: in some cases, the proposed “solutions” are pure theory, sprouting from bad (or absent) science (eg., learning styles, Brain Gym); others are perfectly sensible ideas transmogrified into terrible practice when people become too dogmatic about their application  (group learning, technology).

In addition, schools of education should raise their standards for education research, writes Willingham.

Another new book, The Anti-education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning by Arizona State Professor James Paul Gee is disappointing, writes Willingham. “There is very little solid advice here about how to change education.”

What’s the big idea?

A liberal arts education puts fads in perspective, writes Diana Senechal in the new American Educator.  ”Today’s biggest fad” is “bigness itself.”

Education reformers are especially susceptible to the “big idea,” which can get so big that it loses touch with the “particulars of subject matter, school and classroom,” writes Senechal.

Teachers, here’s the Thing

As a New York City public school teacher for almost three decades, Arthur Goldstein is tired of back-to-school meetings on The Next Big Thing, which teachers must do immediately.

Students need more test prep. Students need less test prep.

Teachers must stand. Teachers must not read aloud. Teachers must sit in rocking chairs and read aloud.

Students must do all writing in class. Students must do all writing at home.

Every year, it’s something new — or something recycled and renamed. An administrator announces the Thing.

 “This is the only Thing that works. We will observe you and pay very close attention to whether or not you do it, because you can’t possibly teach unless you do it every single day without exception. But don’t worry, because it’s the best. After we tell you about it, you’ll break into groups, try it, and report back to us.”

Experienced teachers often disappoint presenters by failing to get sufficiently excited. They ask disrespectful questions, like what happened to last year’s Thing? They are invariably told it’s out. It’s not the Thing anymore.

. . . Teachers are chided. You must move with the times, which are after all a-changing. Once we start doing this Thing we will achieve the active participation that’s forever eluded us.

The Thing may not be bad, he writes. But what works for one teacher may not work for others. And doing the same thing or Thing every day is tedious for his teenage students.

What Elroy Jetson needs to learn

We can’t predict the future, but we can teach “timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper. She doesn’t think much of Virginia Heffernan’s call for a “digital-age upgrade” to education in the New York Times’ Opinionator blog.

“…fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet…For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it’s high time we redesigned American education.”

For example, teachers and professors should stop asking students to write research papers, Heffernan argues, citing Duke English Professor Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. Davidson’s students write “witty and incisive” blog posts and terrible term papers. She blames the term papers.

What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

Old fogies shouldn’t insist that students write if they’d rather make a video, Heffernan believes. It’s the 21st century!

Heffernan misses her own point, responds Porter-Magee. We can’t predict what today’s elementary students will be doing in 20 years. Therefore, “our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing—and often fleeting—technology.”

After all, that students can produce “witty and incisive” blog posts for their peers on topics of their choosing says nothing about their ability to write and speak to multiple audiences or about a variety of topics. (Most multimedia products are necessarily limited and we need to ask more of our students.) And the ability to synthesize complicated information in a persuasive way—grounded in facts, research and reading—is critical and timeless.

Students need to learn to write about more than their personal feelings, Porter-Magee writes.

Amen.

Research papers went out of fashion long ago in high schools, points out Robert Pondiscio, who quotes Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review. He also links to a thoughtful post on All Things Education by Cedar Riener, a college psychology professor, who assigns both long research papers and short responses.

Hanna Barbera thought that Elroy Jetson, age six, would study space history, astrophysics, star geometry and math at the Little Dipper School. No reading or writing in the future?

Fads trump effective teaching

Differentiated Instruction — grouping students by abilities, personal interests and “learning styles” — is a time-wasting fad that is backed by no evidence of effectiveness, writes education consultant Mike Schmoker in Ed Week.

. . .  I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style. The attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious “kinesthetic” activities. And it dumbed down instruction: In English, “creative” students made things or drew pictures; “analytical” students got to read and write.

In these ways, Differentiated Instruction, or DI, corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction. With so many groups to teach, instructors found it almost impossible to provide sustained, properly executed lessons for every child or group-and in a single class period. It profoundly impeded the teacher’s ability to incorporate those protean, decades-old elements of a good lesson which have a titanic impact on learning, even in mixed-ability classrooms . . .

No research supports DI’s effectiveness, Schmoker writes. Cognitive scientists have debunked the “learning styles” theory that underlies DI. But it is now the reigning orthodoxy.

We know a lot about how to teach well, he argues.

First, we need coherent, content-rich guaranteed curriculum — that is, a curriculum which ensures that the actual intellectual skills and subject matter of a course don’t depend on which teacher a student happens to get.

. . . we need to ensure that students read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes, for hundreds of hours per school year, across the curriculum.

Finally, students learn when “lessons start with a clear, curriculum-based objective and assessment, followed by multiple cycles of instruction, guided practice, checks for understanding (the soul of a good lesson), and ongoing adjustments to instruction.”

In the comments, teachers argue that Schmoker’s definition of effective teaching is differentiated instruction. If so, there’s nothing “differentiated” about DI.