Known Knowns vs. Known Unknowns

by Robert Pondiscio
April 11th, 2011

As a field, education often seems long on beliefs, but short on knowledge.  We might believe that technology or small group work improves student learning, for example.  But how do we really know?

Writing in the Teachers College Record, Dan Willingham suggests education needs a “What’s Known Clearinghouse” to provide teachers with current and accurate summaries of education research, similar to digests available to physicians and other professions.  Isn’t this what the IES’s What Works Clearinghouse is supposed to do?  The WWC summarizes the research literature on various curriculum and teaching methods, but says nothing about basic scientific research that might have implications for teaching.  “For example, basic research on human cognition, or on the social lives of teenagers, or sex differences would seem applicable to educational practice,” Willingham writes. “A teacher might want to know the latest research on how children’s memories work, even if this research has not been instantiated in a particular classroom program,” he notes.

“The need for better information about research is not hard to see. Type “learning styles lesson plans” into an internet search engine and you’ll get thousands of hits. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim is scientific, namely that a learning style is part of the mind’s architecture, that differences in learning styles are well characterized, and that that individuals can be categorized on this basis. The data do not support this claim.”

A What’s Known Clearinghouse, Willingham suggests, “would provide summaries of research on topics that are relevant to education, but are not themselves education applications” such as the role in learning of nutrition or stress or various medications. 

“While there may not be studies to evaluate programs and practices borne of this knowledge, there is clear value in teachers knowing, for example, that a great deal of data collected in the last five years indicates that kids are not especially good at multi-tasking, or that, despite what their textbook might have said twenty years ago, the latest evidence indicates that children’s cognitive development does not progress in discrete stages. Such insights can and should be put into practice by reflective educators now, not only in formal programs such as those evaluated in the What Works Clearinghouse, but in the hundreds of decisions a teacher makes each day.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of Dan’s idea might be making it difficult for hucksters to abuse the term “research-based” in promoting their wares.  It might also short-circuit the endless fads that plague education from getting a toe-hold.  For example, it has become a bromide among 21st century skills faddists that technology “changes the way children’s brains work.”  As Willingham notes:

“Brain change in response to technology is nothing special. The brain changes as a consequence of any experience you have.  Becoming a soccer fan changes your brain. Reading this article changes your brain. Experience with technology is unlikely to change the fundamental processes by which we learn, deploy attention, reason, and so forth. These processes are too hardwired to be radically altered. Experience will yield tweaks, not a major overhaul.”

“The current model of information dissemination–a free for all–is not serving the field well,” notes Willingham. ”There is not an invisible hand guiding the marketplace of ideas towards scientific accuracy. It’s time to try something more proactive,” he concludes.


  1. Willingham’s paper, coincidentally, manages to include some excellent references which at least to me are new. There’s the reference to “Strategies of discourse comprehension”, an 1983 book by Van Dijk & Kintsch which talks about the techniques we use more or less unknowingly to understand communication.

    There’s “Escaping the Endless Adolescence”, about the problems teenagers have maturing.

    Then there’s “Pink Brain, Blue Brain”, the 2nd in a series of books about child psychology and about the plasticity of the brain by Lise Eliot. Columbia’s Eric R. Kandel has a glowing review of this book on Amazon.

    All the above are excellent candidates for a ‘what’s known clearinghouse’.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — April 11, 2011 @ 9:30 pm

  2. The problem is that, for the most part, we don’t have the education to judge the difference. My degree included coursework in basic stats and research. It’s not really enough, however, to properly judge every scientific (or pseudo-scientific) study that comes my way. A large portion of the people in education do not even have that basic background.

    Sadly, a large number of the teachers I have encountered are scientifically incurious – they don’t care to know how things work. As a result, they are ready and willing to be taken in by hucksters, especially when what they are being told sounds really good.

    I avoid the ‘professional development’ things as much as possible. To many, I seem like I don’t want to grow. If someone could come up with a ‘professional learning opportunity’ which wasn’t a completely idiotic waste of my time, however, I’d be all for it.

    Comment by Obi-Wandreas — April 11, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

  3. Dan and Anthony have it right. Education needs some kind of clearinghouse to minimize these problems/redundancies. What an embarrassment.

    Would medicine publish another study debunking the link between aluminum in the diet and Alzheimer’s? Somehow, I don’t think so and therein lies the problem for education.

    And BTW, in order to minimize the hucksters and their irrelevant findings we must first eliminate higher education as big business in this country. To allow some of these colleges/universities to actually gain accreditation in the first place is the elephant in board room of higher education.

    That’s not to say some of the tonier institutes of higher education could not stand to up their credibility either. Look at the recent study by a Johns Hopkins “researcher” citing the problems associated with third graders experiencing reading difficulties. Come on, Johns Hopkins, it’s old news, already.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 12, 2011 @ 7:22 am

  4. @ Paul

    Phil Tetlock, a psychologist at Wharton, writes about the risks of “expert” advice. In a paper asking why accountants’ options are biased in favor of management, he notes:

    The … search within the legal system for corrupt actors is broadly consistent with the psychological tendency to attribute behavior to individual dispositions, talents or failings rather than to situational constraints or opportunities. … Thus even when institutional arrangements create conflicts of interest we too often seek a corrupt person to punish, rather than examine the flaws in the system or or fight against those who lobby to keep the broken system in place. (Tetlock, 2006, p. 10)

    Just change “legal” for “teacher training” and you see the challenge. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. But in ourselves…”

    Comment by Matthew — April 12, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  5. It seems to me that this sort of clearinghouse might be a good project for a collaboration between teachers’ unions and administrator associations.

    “In real life” I think professional development and curriculum choice too often gets caught in petty internal power struggles between teachers and administrators.

    Comment by Rachel — April 12, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  6. We know…

    From the National Reading Panel
    The effect size for synthetic programs was d = 0.45, for larger-unit programs, d = 0.34, and for miscellaneous programs, d = 0.27. The conclusion supported by these findings is that various types of systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics approaches in promoting substantial growth in reading.


    Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report, Jim Rose, March 2006

    How phonics became easy as a-b-c: A report on how young children in England should be taught to read is expected to endorse a phonics-based approach.

    The researchers reported that by then, children taught to read by synthetic phonics were:
    • 3.5 years ahead of what was expected for their age in reading words
    • 1.75 years ahead of that expected for their age in spelling
    • 3.5 months ahead of that expected for their age in comprehension

    Study spells success for phonics

    Reading system goes into schools

    And if Diane McGuinness is correct about the Bond & Dykstra study, it’s pretty clear how we know how we should teach beginning reading…SJ

    Comment by Scott — April 12, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

  7. One more time…And if Diane McGuinness is correct about the Bond & Dykstra study, it’s pretty clear we know how we should teach beginning reading…

    Comment by Scott — April 12, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  8. Dan makes a profound distinction.

    Comment by john thompson — April 13, 2011 @ 8:41 am

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