Challenge the Snake Oil

The amount of pseudoscience that exists in education is a serious concern. There is no shortage of claims that are supposedly backed by ‘research’, to the point that the word has become meaningless in education. Despite being debunked, myths like learning styles, school killing creativity or Dale’s cone of experience, continue to be accepted as truth by many teachers. Why do these myths persist?

There is no easy answer. One of the reasons seems to be networks like Twitter, where groups of like-minded teachers and administrators circulate rumours and misinformation that are strengthened through repetition. If we hear something repeated over and over, it begins to sound true and our brain tricks us into thinking the information comes from many different reliable sources. Another explanation for why the myths persist is the fact that any self-styled expert can publish anything they want. We are overwhelmed by many so-called experts in every medium, which makes knowing who to trust a tricky thing to determine. This situation is made worse by the fact that education draws from diverse disciplines, exponentially increasing the number of experts telling us what’s best for teaching and learning. Add to that a slew of cognitive biases, and we can begin to see why education myths are so hard to get rid of.

In dealing with new initiatives imposed on us, it can be difficult for teachers to find the time to separate fact from fiction. Most teachers are too busy to sift through educational blogs and research findings to decide if what they are being asked to do is worthwhile. We also lack the necessary expertise to assess the research. As a result, the majority of teachers will simply accept the methods they are being asked to implement, without really questioning the credibility of the information. This is a problem. If teachers are expected to adjust their practice based on the latest educational trend, we need to be able to assess the validity of the claims underlying the supposed research that justifies it. When people say snake oil is backed up by science, teachers need to challenge that.

It is important for educators to heed the words of Mark Twain who, despite talking about religion and politics, offers a warning that can be applied to education when examining the source of our understanding about teaching: ‘In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.’  

In medicine, doctors are not expected to spend countless hours pouring over the latest research. Instead, there are reliable summaries that are published in reputable journals that allow doctors to keep up-to-date. In education, there is no institution that publishes something similar to this. Teachers and administrators are left on their own to decide what works best. No consensus is reached in the judgement of the validity of educational research. Consequently, new practices that end up being adopted are often based not on sound research, but on the ability of the researchers to market their ideas to administrators and school boards. The most persuasive ideas get the most traction. The repackaging of old concepts into shiny new buzzwords is well know to those who have attended any professional development.

So what can we do about this?  According to de Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulshof in Urban Myths About Learning and Education, when looking at the research behind the claims, we can avoid educational myths and ineffective teaching practices by asking the following questions:

  • Is the author objective?
  • Is there talk of a correlation or a casual connection?
  • Is the author honest in describing the opinions of others?
  • Does the author give evidence, cite research and make connections?
  • Does the evidence come from a reputable scientific study?
  • Is the research published in a peer-reviewed publication?
  • Is the test group large enough?
  • Was a control group used?
  • Was a correct method of statistical analysis used?
  • Is the effect statistically significant?

Another good approach to testing whether or not we should believe the research is from Daniel Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts. Willingham’s four steps in judging the legitimacy of the research are: 1) Strip it: clear away all the wordiness and look at what outcome is being promised 2) Trace it: look at who created the idea and what others have said about it. 3) Analyze it: why are you asked to believe the claim?, what evidence is offered? and does the claim match your experience? 4) Should I do it? weigh the pros and cons of whether it is worth adopting.

If we are going to dispel myths in education, we need to dig deeper and question the science behind many of the claims. Teachers can no longer just passively accept what they are asked to do without knowing if it is really backed up by quality research. Failing to do so is a mistake, one that could make a real difference in students’ learning.

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