Where’s your evidence, Dan?

Dan Meyer has just published a blog post called, ‘A response to critics‘. In it, he links to a previous post of mine and suggests that I claim that learning and motivation trade against each other. This is not my claim so let me make this clear. My claim is that motivation and learning can interact in a number of ways:

  1. You can motivate kids with an activity that does not lead to much learning
  2. Kids can learn something and not feel very motivated by this
  3. Sometimes – often, perhaps – learning something and getting better at it can lead to motivation for further learning

So I don’t think they trade against each other. But I do think that motivation is an odd goal for education. I don’t even believe that Dan thinks it is the ultimate goal. I assume that he must subscribe to the notion that if you motivate kids about maths then this should lead to them learning more maths. Otherwise, exactly what’s the point?

My problem is that, having posed this problem about motivation, I see no evidence to suggest that Meyer has the solution. His activities are pretty standard constructivist problem-based-learning activities. I have often seen such activities fail to motivate students as they shuffle around aimlessly or allow a peer to take over a task.

Where is the body of evidence that they actually are motivating?

And, if we accept the premise that motivation leads to better learning then why do we not see clear evidence from educational research that the kind of activities that Meyer promotes lead to greater learning?

I think this illustrates a key problem in education. We are too credulous as a profession. We allow someone to pose a problem and suggest that they have the solution. Then we say, “yeah, that seems kinda reasonable to me,” rather than, “where is the evidence that your proposed solution actually fixes the problem that you’ve identified?”

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12 Comments on “Where’s your evidence, Dan?”

  1. Reblogged this on Blogcollectief Onderzoek Onderwijs and commented:
    Greg nails this one about learning and motivation, especially in relation to PBL. His closing is perfect: We are too credulous as a profession. We allow someone to pose a problem and suggest that they have the solution. They we say, “yeah, that seems kinda reasonable to me,” rather than, “where is your evidence that your proposed solution actually fixes the problem that you’ve identified?”

  2. Think it would be good to ask prior question which is whether the problem identified and put forward as the key one to direct all attention and funding to, is in fact the best one,,,,Seems to me that concept of pupil motivation in educational discourse is one way of avoiding looking at either the content which we are wanting them to get motivated about; or wider cultural problem of adult authority. It also leans towards focusing on pupils’ psychological characteristics which I don’t think teachers can, or should, be primarily concerned. In short, might do better to start with problems of teachers knowing their subjects well enough (way beyond the syllabus alone) and how teachers can act authoritiatively in schools, rather than whether pupils are motivated or not.

    • Curmudgeon says:

      This is education … we’ll have none of your logical and reasoned responses here, thank you.

      Seriously, though, education is notable for only occasionally studying proposals with real students, only using case-control studies to determine whether that reform works, and never testing afterwards to see if the proposal had a positive effect on the goal (that was never clearly delineated in the first place) …. and then ignoring whatever was discovered in favor of something new and shiny.

      It’s like we’re all collectively suffering from research ADHD.

  3. I resent being told by people who are not good at maths that ‘enjoyment’ through games and PBL will help create the best mathematicians of the future via ‘motivation’. It’s a complete insult because when you ask people who love maths whether they are good at maths because their teachers let them play lots of games and ‘discover’ all skills and knowledge, they reply that they did not learn that way (and I am included in this).

    I find it very difficult when some BEd specialising in Early Years spouts off about how children need to have ‘fun’ maths lessons where they don’t even know they’re doing maths. They completely ignore my own evidence that us maths lovers became maths lovers because we worked bloody hard, practising to the point of fluency and we never gave up when the going got tough.

    If I could wave a magic wand, I would make EY professionals and infant teachers have a conversation with people who have degrees in mathematics, those who are secondary teachers in maths who know FIRST HAND how to become good at and enjoy the beauty of numbers.

  4. FTR, I hated project work. Many will identify with my own experience that the better mathematician ends up doing all the work.

  5. Ryan says:

    “Where’s your evidence?”

    He has a dissertation describing results from randomized control studies. http://blog.mrmeyer.com/wp-content/uploads/meyer-dissertation-1506-repack.pdf

    “We are too credulous as a profession. We allow someone to pose a problem and suggest that they have the solution. Then we say, “yeah, that seems kinda reasonable to me,” rather than, “where is the evidence that your proposed solution actually fixes the problem that you’ve identified?””

    It seems like you have a picture that there is “a solution” out there and that evidence will, more often than not, point toward that solution. Unfortunately any intervention is going to have a *range* of effects across different contexts of students, teachers, time, environment, and so on. It would be absurd to say, “You claim that your song is being played on the radio and enjoyed by thousands, but I don’t see the evidence that it actually fixes music.” Education is a probably a little further along the spectrum toward there being invariant principles, i.e. how the brain works and what ought to learned, but even our best scientific understanding makes out optimal learning to be more like a DJ playing for the house than IKEA assembly.

    “I resent being told by people who are not good at maths that ‘enjoyment’ through games and PBL will help create the best mathematicians of the future via ‘motivation’.”

    How about Keith Devlin (http://profkeithdevlin.com/) or Terence Tao (https://terrytao.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/gamifying-algebra/)?

    • gregashman says:

      I thought Dan’s phd was in the use of computers or something, not the type of teaching that he promotes in his TED talk and blog. I also think he found a null result, as I recall. Can you explain how the one supports the other?

      I just do not buy this idea that education is a different kind of a thing and so we can suspend all requirement for evidence. A few hundred years ago, your argument could have been made in favour of bleeding with leeches or against aseptic surgery – all patients are different, it’s really complicated etc.

      In the case of Dan’s problem-based learning, we actually have pretty good evidence that such approaches have negative effects, particularly compared to explicit instruction. See my post here:

      https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/nothing-to-prove-but-i-will-anyway/

  6. […] drawn into discourse. It is a fact, after all, that eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas. A lack of empirical evidence is often cited to undermine arguments for […]

  7. […] Greg Ashman, advocate of explicit instruction, the question is either a) moot, because learning matters more than interest, or b) answered in favor of the explicit version. Greg has claimed that knowledge breeds competence […]

  8. kentilton says:

    “I assume that [Dan Meyer] must subscribe to the notion that if you motivate kids about maths then this should lead to them learning more maths.”

    I have asked in comments on his blog a couple of times whether instruction in, say, the Algebra I learned in the 1960s was still an objective and never gotten an answer. Maybe my question was just missed, but it would help to know.

    If the answer is, “Nope, our goal now is .”, fine, but without this being made clear we are probably talking past each other.

    I love the idea of getting learners engaged with PBL, but my first question is always, “Is there time in the school year for that, too?”. My second question is hinted at in your piece: how many students in a group are engaged and how many are along for the ride?

  9. […] I have queried this lack of evidence before and I have suggested that it is a good example of the problem with how we talk about education. It is hard to imagine this kind of a discussion about the practice of any other profession (if we can class teaching as a profession – this might disqualify it). […]


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