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.

Cogs, Compliance and Comformity

by Robert Pondiscio
January 14th, 2010

short blog post on classroom management has ignited a fascinating and at times contentious debate on our expectations for children to behave in certain ways in classrooms.  Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant blog typically concerns itself with technology implementation in schools.  But overhearing a preschool teacher tell her class “Good job!  I like the way you all are staying in line. You’re so good at this!” prompted McLeod to respond with two simple sentences:

The socialization to be a cog in the machine begins early. Woe be it if you don’t stay in line.

This is the most common positive reinforcement trick in the classroom teacher’s bag of trick (I’ve even joked it’s the basis of Race to the Top).  McLeod’s quip implies it’s mindless compliance, but teachers see it differently.  “I don’t see the woe in this, just courtesy, common sense, and safety,” writes one.  Walking quietly in line in preschool shows consideration for the other classes, notes another. “You could say that the teacher should explain WHY being quiet is good in the hallways, but trust me – she did, about 20 times already.”  A third teacher writes,

I can only assume, Scott, that next time you go to the movies or the grocery store, you’ll stand randomly by a check stand and hope someday it will be your turn. A queue is not necessarily a means to transform us into lemmings.

And this:

Sometimes it’s about safety. We drive in lines, not clumps. Conformity for the sake of someone else wielding their power is a problem. Conformity for the sake of everyone’s well being is a good thing.

Most of the commenters on the blog, presumably educators, see nothing sinister at work.  But a few see conformity and coercion in the teacher’s praise for her young charges’ ability to stand quietly in line.  ”If we only occassionally asked for mindless compliance from children, but most of the time encouraged them to be active participants in their learning, I would be lot more satisfied,” writes one.

I’m with the common sense crowd.  Lack of self-control and consideration for others was the biggest impediment to learning in my classroom and in my school.  On a scale of one to ten, it was a thirteen.   A little self-discipline and self-control goes a long way.  And besides, isn’t lining up and walking silently a form of group work and cooperative learning?