December 6, 2006

Too much opinion, too little theory

Most educators seem to have an opinion for improving education. And, most of those opinions are, unfortunately, wrong. The opinions are wrong because they do not result in the improved learning of children. This failure to induce learning, however, does not stop these educators from spouting their opinions. You would think that embarrassment alone would put an end to it. You would be wrong.

Because education is not yet a mature profession, no one bothers to validate these crackpot opinions via the scientific process. Educators nonetheless often label these unsubstantiated guesses or hunches as theories. They are not.

Theories are not merely someone's opinion, even though that is how the word is often used in everyday speech. Even if that person appears to be an authority figure, their opinions do not magically become theories. In education, there are precious few authority figures at the K-12 level in any event. Most educators simply do not know how to induce learning in kids who are not part of the portion of the top of the bell curve which always has managed to learn no matter how poorly or superbly the material is presented to them. Educators have been much less successful in inducing real learning in the remainder of kids. Without this success in educating, there can be no authority. This is the difference between an opinion and a theory; a difference that is not understood by most educators.

A theory is a logically self-consistent model or framework for describing the behavior of a related set of natural or social phenomena. It originates from or is supported by experimental evidence. In this sense, a theory is a systematic and formalized expression of all previous observations that is predictive, logical and testable. Most opinions given by educators have either never been tested or have failed under somewhat rigorous experimental conditions. The result is that these opinions are not reliably predictive of what works in education.

The fact of the matter is that educators, for the most part, don't know how any kid really learns. What they do know is that some kids do learn. Then they form opinions based on their observations of these successful learners. The result is that the opinions, coming from those who are naive observers about educating since they don't truly know how to induce learning, often prove to be wrong. This is to be expected.

There is no shame in being wrong. Scientists often have hypotheses that prove to be wrong. Science progresses slowly in fits and starts and through lots of trial and error. There is no shame in saying that you don't know something or how something works. What is shameful is professing that you do know something, when in fact you don't. What is especially shameful is when you do this by circumventing or perverting the scientific process. You don't to pass off your opinion as a theory when it is not. If you try to do this in most of the legitimate hard sciences and engineering fields, you will be recognized as a fraud by your peers and discredited. In education, however, most of the theorists are frauds. What we have is a bunch of foxes guarding the hen house. There is a critical mass of frauds in education that prevents the peer review process from working as it should to discredit failed or untested hypotheses being passed off as theory.

In education, there is no distinction between opinion and theory. All opinion is passed off as legitimate theory. It is almost impossible to for a non-educator to determine what worked from what doesn't work in education. It is virtually impossible to separate opinion from theory. Journalists fall prey to this charade all the time and it does not help that they often have the same agenda and biases as educators. Journalists help perpetuate the spread of misinformation in education by giving credence every crackpot opinion they get from educators with which they happen to agree.

So what's a non-educator to do in such a hostile environment?

Be sceptical. Assume that everything you are told or read is merely opinion, unless proven otherwise. Assume further that the opinion is wrong, unless the opinion has resulted in children have increased their learning by an educationally significant amount under reasonable experimental conditions. Make sure that these kids were not "natural learners" who would have learned no matter what. Discount all appeals to authority. It doesn't matter how many books the person has written, if he is a professor at a prestigious Ed school, a teacher of thirty years experience, a member of some prestigious education group or think tank. It only matters whether that person has achieved results or is drawing a reasonable inference from someone who has. Such a framework allows you to safely ignore 95% of all the garbage opinion out there.

So wipe your mental slate clean. Forget what you know or think you know about education. Most of its is likely wrong. From now on be fastidious about what you let in. Keep out the garbage. No matter how appealing you think an opinion might be, don't let it affect your thinking until you've validated it. When you find something you think is true, look for counterexamples that cast doubt on it.

You'll soon see that education is not nearly as complicated as you've been lead to believe. What you'll see is that what works in education is consistent and predictable.


Anonymous said...

Have a trackback.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece (said the mid-career changer just completing a master's degree in education that is so laughable he hesitates to call it a degree).

At my child's school, where I discovered that they long ago gave up weekly spelling lists, quizzes and the like. When informed that the new way (read: lack of emphasis on spelling) was better, I asked how it was determined that the old way no longer works. I was then further informed that "they" say the new methods are better. I didn't ask who "they" are, but I'm sure "they" have some pretty good "theories".

Anonymous said...

On top of not knowing why or whether teaching methods work, there is the problem of defining what the goal is. It doesn't matter whether the methods work or not if they are going in the wrong direction.

I don't mind that they have their own opinions or assumptions, but I do mind that they feel perfectly willing to force them on everyone else.

Anonymous said...

"I was then further informed that "they" say the new methods are better. I didn't ask who "they" are, but I'm sure "they" have some pretty good "theories"."

Like I said, when you hear a PhD student say in a seminar, "Everybody knows that . . ." you know there's a serious problem.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece.

As a social scientist myself, I have become increasingly skeptical of the possibility of applying scientific method to social phenomena. The problem is that there are too many variables. Scientific research requires that we isolate variables in order not only to posit theories but to test them. But this is only possible when the "n" is very small. So our results for "small n" studies are always open to challenge. And the possibility of doing "large n" studies is virtually nil, due to the huge expense. Plus there are "human subjects" regulations that further complicate the issue.

So my hope for finding a scientific way out of the philosophical debates is also nil. Social science is nice--in theory--but it has rarely led us to any sort of a revolution in our understanding of human society.

So let the debates continue!