Stopping a Bad Idea In Its Tracks

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2008

“A lie can get half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” said Mark Twain.

Dan Willingham does the education world a good service, stopping a bad teaching idea in its tracks.  If you saw yesterday’s ASCD Smart Brief newsletter, which goes out to hundreds of thousands of educators, you may have read the lead item, “Students can benefit from tackling hardest material first.” It concluded that, “while most teachers progress from easier topics to more advanced ones, that may not always be the best approach, according to a new study.”  A man bites dog story if ever there was one. 

There’s just one problem: That conclusion is not supported by the study, which was done by Greg Ashby, an internationally recognized expert in how people learn new categories.  On Britannica Blog Willingham calls BS on this half-baked idea:

Ashby is interested in differences between two types of categories: those for which one learns an explicit rule (e.g. tricycles have three wheels, bicycles have two) and those categories that one learns almost intuitively, and for which one cannot articulate the rule by which one makes a judgment (e.g., the difference between paintings by Klee and paintings by Kandinsky).  Ashby doesn’t use these sorts of categories, however. He uses more figures more amendable to experimental control such as those shown in the figure. The finding in the article is that for the intuitive categorization (like Klee/Kandinsky), subjects learn better if they get the more difficult-to-categorize stimuli first, and the easy stimuli later. For the explicit category (like the bicycle/tricycle) the order doesn’t matter.

Ashby didn’t make any claims about education, notes Willingham, who contacted him for “to be sure that I wasn’t missing something.” Ashby’s reply:

“I believe it is much too premature to apply our results to classroom instruction. First, the work needs to be generalized to natural objects and real-world information of the type encountered in classrooms. Second, we found a benefit for initial training on difficult items only for a certain specialized kind of learning that is probably rare in classroom instruction. The goal of most classroom instruction is to convey explicit knowledge to students, and our research found no benefit to training initially on difficult items when the knowledge to be gained is explicit.”

It’s not hard to imagine how this broad, unsustainable idea — tackle the hard stuff first — could be misapplied.  For example, as a justification to continue to have kids attempt Algebra before mastering basic math.  Kudos to Willingham.

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