October 13, 2010

The charlatans are already in charge


The usually sensible Karin Chenoweth is worried that the education charlatans might take over education.

I have some bad news for you Karin.  The charlatans are already in charge.

Because the vast engine of education research has not, for the most part, concerned itself with answering those kinds of practical, everyday problems, teachers and principals cannot rely on a solid base of evidence such as the one that establishes the "standard of care" informing the field of medicine.

That leaves a vacuum of knowledge. Two possibilities exist for filling that vacuum: the carefully built-up craft knowledge that successful educators have developed; and the nostrums of charlatans.

First of all, the vast engine of education research mostly generates non-research opinion-like studies intended to provide research-like support for the kind of things educators already like and wish to practice.  The kind of stuff that Karin wants isn’t being generated because there is no demand for it by education practitioners.  When genuine research is developed, it is often ignored or misapplied.  There’s no real need to achieve results in education, so there is no need to generate research directed at achieving results.  There is no vacuum, the vacuum has already been filled by charlatans.

And as far as the craft knowledge of educators goes, it isn’t.  Educators aren’t professionals or craftsman and certainly don’t act like it.   VIcki Snider has written directly on this point.

Teachers aspire to be professionals, but without a shared scientific body of knowledge they remain bricoleur, a term borrowed from French by anthropologist Levi-Strauss (1966). There is no precise translation for bricoleur in English, but according to the translator's note, they are a “jack of all trades.” Not a handyman exactly, but a professional do-it-yourselfer. They cannot be called craftsmen because they work with whatever tools are at hand to solve whatever problems exist, nor do they have a specialized niche like craftsmen. They must be very intelligent and may, at times, achieve good results, but they are still constrained by their limited and finite assortment of tools and by the extent of their experiences. Contrast the bricoleur to engineers. Engineers have access to a range of tools designed for the specific job that needs to be done. They rely on the cumulative evidence for theoretical and technical knowledge, and use what is known to expand the boundaries of their professional knowledge. They rely on other professionals and specialists to help them do their job and to solve new problems. Engineers specialize--electrical, mechanical, biomedical, chemical, aerospace, naval, civil--and one type of engineer may assist the other, but would never be expected to do his or her job. An engineer is a member of a profession, but a bricoleur is just a clever person. Without a common body of knowledge about best practice, every new bricoleur teacher invents the wheel.

A profession that is guided by myths rather than empirically validated principles and practices maintains its bricoleur status. The teaching occupation will become a profession only when educators replace myth with science and raise their expectations for the success of all students.

This is why educators are so susceptible to various bromides and tonics being peddled by charlatans.

Even if we were to follow Karin’s suggestion

That's why it's so important for the field as a whole to step up and recognize that as complicated as it is to educate children, some people have figured out how to do it. Recognizing those experts' hard-won knowledge and learning from them may be our only real hope.

it won’t transform educators into the professionals we need them to be.  We need them to be empirical and mere recognition is not the same as empiricism.


TerriW said...

I have a vivid memory of Mrs. Carlson, my eighth grade French teacher, trying to explain to us the definition of bricoler, and she finally settled on "to tinker" or "to fiddle with."

Sounds about right.

Unknown said...

Given the Gates Foundation support for Education Trust where Chenoweth works as well as its support for many of the 21st Century classroom ideas that would be a continuation of the failed child-centered activities policies of the past, it's hard not to see her statements as paving the way for pretending that the Model Teaching Standards would be based on research instaed of failed myths.

That was a long sentence but there is a tremendous drive on to use a STEM emphasis as the wedge to make all American education less academic and more social and emotionally focused.

Dick Schutz said...

You've got it mostly right here, Ken.

But the reason that teachers and other keds-on-the-ground people don't "use" research, is that research is simply information and (as you say), it's mostly weak information designed to impress one's colleagues, support an ideological belief, to get the next grant, or to get a university promotion.

The best educational research we have is the NCLS Early Childhood Longitudinal Study--Kindergarten and Birth Cohorts. It's all but ignored by everyone.

There is another body of "high quality" ed research lit: the dozen or so randomized control experiments conducted by the Institute of Educational Sciences. These are multi-year, low-hundreds of millions of dollars each. The studies deal with such matters as remedial reading, after-school instruction, teaching comprehension, and comprehensive school reform.

The thing is, every single one of the studies reports "no impact, so each has been buried by the Feds.

People read information, but to use anything it has to be formed into artifacts--products and protocols--that are useable. In sectors other than education, this is the D in R&D. In education, this important complex is absent.

The govt-acad-pub GAP trinty foists off half-baked "resources" that "qualified teachers are believed capable of "meeting the needs" of the kids they are teaching. If a program doesn't work, the GAP bashes the keds-on-the-ground people for "lack of fidelity."