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.

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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.”

Neuro-garbage in education

Pop neuroscience — silly and scientifically inaccurate — has spurred a backlash, writes Alissa Quart in a New York Times op-ed. Among the critics are NeurocriticNeurobonkersNeuroskepticMind Hacks and Dorothy Bishop’s Blog

There’s a lot of neuro-garbage in education, writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

Sometimes it’s the use of accurate but ultimately pointless neuro-talk that’s mere window dressing for something that teachers already know (e.g., explaining the neural consequences of exercise to persuade teachers that recess is a good idea for third-graders).

Other times the neuroscience is simply inaccurate (exaggerations regarding the differences between the left and right hemispheres, for example).

Even when the neuroscience is solid, “we can’t take lab findings and pop them right into the classroom,” Willingham writes.

. . . the outcomes we care about are behavioral; reading, analyzing, calculating, remembering.

. . . Likewise, most of the things that we can change are behavioral. We’re not going to plant electrodes in the child’s brain to get her to learn–we’re going to change her environment and encourage certain behaviors. . . . Neuroscience is out of the loop.

It’s possible to use neuroscience to improve education, writes Willingham. But it isn’t easy.

Teachers who know the most about neuroscience believe the most things that aren’t true, writes Cedar Riener, a psychology professor, in Cedar’s Digest, citing this study. These teachers’ belief in myths is rooted in their values, he writes. People want to believe low achievers just haven’t found the right way to tap their “unlimited reservoir of intelligence” properly. “To dismiss the learning styles myth, we have to let go of equating cognitive ability (or intelligence) with some sort of larger social value.”

Teach to students’ commonalities

Instead of always trying to individualize instruction or teach to different “learning styles,” teachers should spend more time teaching to what students have in common, advise Daniel Willingham and David Daniel in Educational Leadership. For example, all children need factual knowledge, practice and feedback from a knowledgeable source to learn.

The college counselor is an online portal

An online portal is helping community college students identify their learning styles and study strategies.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  The Lumina Foundation is funding Latino college success initiatives.

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.

How to study effectively

What everyone knows about learning ain’t necessarily so, reports the New York Times.

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Much advice on study habits is wrong, researchers say. For example, studying in the same place every day is less effective than studying the same material in different environments. “Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.”

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work.

Cramming can help students pass a test, but students remember much more when they space their study periods.

It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

Testing is a “tool of learning” cognitive scientists say. Retrieving an idea “seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.” Students who study the material once and take a practice test remember much more than students who studied the material in two sessions.

If the test is stressful, that’s all the better.  “The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.”

Scientists: No evidence for learning styles

No evidence supports the idea that children learn more if teachers teach to their “learning styles,” concludes a study by a team of cognitive scientists published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Education Week summarizes:

Some children, for instance, may be visual learners, while others best absorb information by hearing it. Other theories categorize learners as “assimilators,” “divergers,” and who knows what else. A teacher’s job, according to this line of thinking, is to find out what students’ individual learning styles are and tailor instruction accordingly.

However, few studies have used an experimental method to test learning-style theory, the researchers found.  Among those that did, “several yielded results that contradicted the theory.”

. . . the report adds, the “widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.”

Of course, Dan Willingham has been debunking learning styles for awhile.

“Wagering is now open on how long it will take before this unsupported idea loosens its grip on education, writes Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge Blog. “The over/under is 2o years. I’ll take the over.”

Willingham on learning styles

Check out Dan Willingham’s article on learning styles in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet.”

Have you been told that you should teach to children’s individual learning styles? Well, research has not supported that theory.

The data are straightforward too: It doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work–not only for the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory, but for many other learning styles theories that have been proposed and tested since the 1940s.

Researchers have been conducting experiments on learning styles for 50 years. They’ve been tested with the sorts of materials that kids encounter in schools. They’ve been tested with kids diagnosed with a learning disability.

There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.

Willingham goes on to explain that children do learn differently, but those differences cannot be simply attributed to learning styles. They may have to do with a child’s “knowledge, interest, or other factors.”

Differentiating for learning styles “makes a teacher’s job much more difficult with no benefit to students,” he writes. “Yet teachers are still asked to do it.”

Let’s hope school districts start coming to their senses on this matter. It is silly, distracting, and taxing to differentiate instruction in so many ways at once–especially when it doesn’t work.