The solution to education’s groupthink

There is a blog site called Mind/Shift. It is based in Northern California and is part of KQED, a public service broadcaster. Mind/Shift represents much of what is wrong in education. It contains posts by breathless writers about new and innovative teaching practices. The evidence to support these claims is usually notable only by its omission.

For instance, a new piece by Katrina Schwartz, a staff journalist, is a review of a talk given by Will Richardson, a former English teacher who now works as a consultant. The article states that:

“Schools need to have a clear vision, rooted in today’s context and a set of practices that reflect those two things. When he consults with schools, Richardson said he most commonly sees a lack of vision based in how students learn. In his many talks he shares a list of things educators know intuitively about how kids learn best alongside a list of things schools do because it’s easier for adults. He says if educators want to shift education to the modern context, they need to prioritize things that help students learn best.”

This is actually a statement that should be supported by evidence. Whatever the limitations of educational research, strategies that ‘help students learn best’ are certainly something that can be experimentally tested. And yet the appeal is not to research but to ‘what educators know intuitively’.

A graphic of Richardson’s is displayed in the article. I won’t reproduce it because I don’t have permission but it is a classic of the form (I call these ‘tabular dichotomies’). We are presented with two lists that are side-by side. The first list has the title, “Common sense”, and includes statements such as, “real world application”, “fun”, “relevance to their lives”, “social”, “autonomy and agency”. Presumably, this list is meant to represent common sense about how students learn best. The second list is simply labelled, “???????”, and includes things like, “sitting in rows”, “one subject area focus” and “no choice/agency”.

These question marks are telling and are part of the reason why I assign little personal blame to the teachers, consultants and journalists whose symbiotic relationship generates this kind of writing. It’s a form of groupthink. They inhabit a bubble. If we try to see it from their perspective then the revolution that we need in education really is common sense. Why else would everyone that they interact with agree? And there really is no reason for sitting students in rows. It’s just a hangover, a tradition kept going by recalcitrants who are simply slaves to a system and who haven’t thought about education very much.

We see a similar attitude in an EdSurge piece called, “How to Manage the 4 Types of Teachers You Meet in Professional Development.” I’ve included the full title because it took me a while to come to terms with it. The piece is about persuading teachers to adopt edtech products. There is little doubt that if the author met me she would conclude that I am the type that she labels a, “Lagger”. Apparently, the solution to laggers is:

“First and always – talk about the why. Talk to them about how everything we do is to prepare our students to be productive citizens in their society and how we do them a disservice by not providing them with access to tools that will assist our children in doing just that. Take things sloooooooowly. These teachers benefit from sessions that are either one-on-one or small group. Encourage baby steps and be realistic in expectations.”

Again, the assumption is that skeptics are simply ignorant. With this mindset, it’s just not possible to contemplate that these skeptics might have a point. The benefits of what are being proposed are so self-evident that it must be some personal quality or lack of confidence that is preventing them from moving forward.

In reality, I don’t need some edtech advocate talking really sloooooooowly to me in a one-on-one session, I need to have the product explained and I need to be persuaded that it’s worth bothering with.

I do have the solution to educational groupthink of this kind but I don’t think you’re going to like it. There are no shortcuts in much the same way that there are no magic shortcuts to ‘critical thinking’ in education. It will be a long process.

And this process involves quiet, determined challenge. If you are able, write a comment on a post that seems to be at odds with the evidence. Link to a research paper that challenges what has been said. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my comment on the Mind/Shift piece and that’s what I tried to do recently in a comment on a piece in The Conversation about maths teaching. Keep it polite but remember that the most civil criticism is still criticism and so people are inclined to object to it. I recommend drafting comments in word and saving them. If you have a blog site and your comment isn’t posted – this sometimes happens – then you have the start of a blog post of your own.

Nothing will change overnight and you are unlikely to persuade the author of the post. But it’s a start. If one journalist pauses to check out the evidence before clicking ‘publish’ on his next piece then this is a small victory. And any reader who is new to the game will only have to look below the line and see that not everybody thinks the same way. In fact, there are quite reasonable people out there who are suggesting that there is evidence to the contrary.

Of course, if you can find the time then please write a blog of your own. Blogging is a great democratising tool that allows you to be part of the solution. And if you are an optimist like me then this means being part of the future. It’s just going to take a bit of work getting there.

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18 Comments on “The solution to education’s groupthink”

  1. I agree with much of what you say here, Greg. I found the binary view of teaching presented in Mindshift frustrating and the EdSurge piece particularly irksome for not only the uncritical assumption that integrating technology is what all good teachers MUST do, but the labeling of those who do not as ‘laggards’. Thanks for calling it out. It’s important that we all apply a critical lens to what we read.

    However, I think your opening paragraph is unfair. “Breathless” writers doesn’t seem any better than “laggard” to be honest, and not everything published on Mindshift is unsupported by evidence. (I say without producing any as I can’t be bothered going through their older posts, but I do recall reading some that were pretty sound IMO)

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    GROUPTHINK In School Reform — Who Needs It?

    Two leading American education analysts — Rick Hess and Robert Pondiscio — have experienced searing experiences around the issues of groupthink.

    Hess, with the American Enterprise Institute, wrote (Jn 15’16) that the Ed Reform community is as loaded today with groupthink as the Teacher Ed Colleges have been for so long. The progressive orthodoxy rules: “Dissenters, whether students or faculty, were dismissed as troublemakers.” Outside the faculties, Ed Reformers critical of the dominant reform movements have no place to “look for refuge”. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2016/06/school_reform_is_the_new_ed_school.html

    Hess, in an earlier article (Jn 1’16) figured that “90% of ‘school reform’ land” is progressive and that their “’by any means necessary’ ethos” is a method that does not square with conservatives. He figures that the general population outside schools is an even 50/50 split between conservatives and progressives.
    http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2016/06/making_sense_of_left-right_school_reform_divide.html

    Pondiscio, of the Thomas Fordham Institute, wrote (May 25’16) about “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform”. The comments section to the article was suspended because they were “getting unnecessarily acrimonious and threatening. ” https://edexcellence.net/articles/the-lefts-drive-to-push-conservatives-out-of-education-reform

    If critics in the education communities are complaining of being squeezed out in education discussions, where does that leave the “consumers” — general public, students, parents, taxpayers? This goes way beyond “producer capture” and “rent-seekers’ dominion”, doesn’t it? That’s one good reason that “uber” ideas are taking hold — education savings accounts, charter schools, online learning, home education, etc. Anything to avoid the nastiness!

    • Divers_Alarums says:

      It is unfortunate that Rick Hess and some of the commenters here seem to be conflating progressivism, the pedagogy, with progressivism, the political stance. Although there may be overlap, the two are not the same and one can be politically progressive via a commitment to traditional pedagogy and a return to prominence of knowledge in the ed-school world (or vice-versa).

      Greg, I hope you will clear up any misconceptions that may have arisen.

      • gregashman says:

        I agree with you. I have written about this in the past. The conflation is unhelpful.

      • If it is your point, why should Greg clear it up? And if you have a point, why not put your name to it?

      • Janita says:

        Hear, hear! This is a point that we need to keep making, not only because it’s important in itself, but also because it helps to counter the stereotyping that progressive education purports to oppose but in fact promulgates.

      • Divers_Alarums says:

        @Karin Litzcke, I can see how, if I were about to remove your infected appendix, that information might be useful to you, but this is not that kind of situation.

  3. David says:

    Hi Greg–thanks for this. I do a bit of commenting over at The Conversation and Inside Higher Ed myself, but the problem I find is that the ed tech people and the other consultants pushing the groupthink don’t really worry about us teachers–they see us as followers. Oh yes, some of us might turn into advocates for a product/system (see how Google for Education recruits teacher-enthusiasts and uses them to convey The Message to other schools), but the real gold for these people are our administrators.

    They hit the administrator conferences, selling to our often not-very-well-engaged-in-the-research principals, headmasters and presidents the “Next Big Thing that Will Transform Education!” They then use the fear of being left behind to peddle their wares to these unsuspecting types, who then come back to their schools and mandate changes.

    My own school–despite being part of the centuries-old Jesuit educational tradition–has gone through the gamut on this: 1:1 computing, 21st Century Skills, student-centered learning, smartboards, etc. We’ve ended by having a rather poisoned relationship with our admin team and wasted a lot of money on stupid things and consultants marketing a product framed as professional development.

    Might I suggest that we also need to engage these folks more? Trying to present at their conferences and commenting/writing for their publications (which are often closed or subscription only) might also be a way of piercing through the nonsense.

    • Tara Houle says:

      Another unsuspecting group which gets boggled by edubabble are the parents. By having these educrats and “experts” selling education, rather than allowing teachers to teach it, the message MUST get through to the parents, i.e. the keepers of the participants…the students. I find the best way to tackle this is by educating them on evidence based learning. Many simply take it for granted that the schools know best, and are gobsmacked when they have to enroll their kids at a tutoring centre by Gr.3. What went wrong? Why can’t my child do his times tables? And this is usually followed up with “you must do more to support your children at home”, when the truth is, their kids aren’t being taught anything meaningful based on the faulty system, and on the methods being employed in the classroom.

      Parents need to know what works. As the guardians of their children, if more knew the foolhardy, harmful methods being used based on nonsense dictated from the higher ups, there might be a revolution. The only profession which does not adhere to professional standards is education. This is wrong. Just as we would not allow an untested medicine being experimented on our children why do we allow the same scenario in our classrooms? Get the word out. Attend parent meetings. Hold sessions and invite those who actually KNOW what works, and who holds the key to effective learning. We need to force the hand of the educrats; they will not listen to reason, so we must proceed and attempt to educate the masses with common sense and evidence based learning.

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    [resubmitting without links, which can be found “groupthink Rick Hess”]

    GROUPTHINK In School Reform — Who Needs It?

    Two leading American education analysts — Rick Hess and Robert Pondiscio — have experienced searing experiences around the issues of groupthink.

    Hess, with the American Enterprise Institute, wrote (Jn 15’16) that the Ed Reform community is as loaded today with groupthink as the Teacher Ed Colleges have been for so long. The progressive orthodoxy rules: “Dissenters, whether students or faculty, were dismissed as troublemakers.” Outside the faculties, Ed Reformers critical of the dominant reform movements have no place to “look for refuge”.

    Hess, in an earlier article (Jn 1’16) figured that “90% of ‘school reform’ land” is progressive and that their “’by any means necessary’ ethos” is a method that does not square with conservatives. He figures that the general population outside schools is an even 50/50 split between conservatives and progressives.

    Pondiscio, of the Thomas Fordham Institute, wrote (May 25’16) about “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform”. The comments section to the article was suspended because they were “getting unnecessarily acrimonious and threatening. ”

    If critics in the education communities are complaining of being squeezed out in education discussions, where does that leave the “consumers” — general public, students, parents, taxpayers? This goes way beyond “producer capture” and “rent-seekers’ dominion”, doesn’t it? That’s one good reason that “uber” ideas are taking hold — education savings accounts, charter schools, online learning, home education, etc. Anything to avoid the nastiness!

  5. I love the use of the word “breathless.” I personally have used the term “ecstatic” for the same purpose, and my point has been that the emotion comes from the wrong source. When your clients or users are ecstatic about your service or product, then, more power to you. But when the over-the-top excitement comes from the providers, and makes no reference to how the offerings are received but still dwells on their fabulousness, then something is haywire and it has be called out.

    One of the most pressing reasons to call this out fast in education is that it is catching. Here is an example from law: http://www.slaw.ca/2016/07/21/access-to-justice-yes-in-my-back-yard/, and out of the many links there, I’ll note this one from librarianship: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/get-thee-to-a-library-its-more-important-than-ever/article29886499/.

    And what these pieces have in common with breathless education writing is that there is no evidence in them of even satisfaction, much less ecstasy, by service recipients. Instead, this material is meant to sell, and to brainwash. It is flat-out propaganda, and the people peddling it are flat-out snake-oil sales people. And in the systems where this is occurring, you’ll note that the money to pay them comes involuntarily out of people’s pockets via taxes or, if it is a secondary system, mandatory membership. So just as Greg has piercingly noted that the appeal is not to research or to teaching success but to the self-aggrandizement of teachers…. I mean, “hug a librarian?” That’s like the bumper sticker I saw yesterday that said “Respect Teachers! They deserve it.” The car no doubt belonged to a teacher. For the consultancy, the job is not to improve teaching. It is to keep the money flowing their way. And to do that, they have to sell. Think Coca Cola. Even if it is the only thing you can find to drink in stores (and there was a time when it was), they keep advertising.

    The core failure is in academe, where unfortunately the pedagogical methods invented in the schools of “experimental psychology on non-consenting minors” (aka “faculties of education”) have taken hard and fast root throughout the institution. Progressivism is now found in librarianship and law; even medical educators speak of “student centred instruction,” heaven help us. We lost the academy long ago, and the inevitable failure of the professions follows, one after another. When infrastructure starts failing, we’ll know that even engineering has gone.

    But your second excellent catch, Greg, is the intent to sell technology. Here in Canada, we have an organization called C21 Canada dot org, and if you can find your way around their incomprehensible website, you’ll see that the major sponsors are all the major tech peddlers (check especially at the end of their 3.0 report). You’ll catch that the approach to learning difficulties (called “disabilities” here as always, as if they were students’ fault) is to make students dependent on technology rather that to overcome their weaknesses. And you’ll have trouble missing the fact that the people who comprise this organization hold senior positions such as the superintendency throughout the education bureaucracy, including in the provincial ministry.

    So the only place where I differ with you in this post, Greg, is in the antidote. Propaganda cannot be effectively combatted one-to-one or by blogging (though I too hope they have some effect, hence my own efforts). If you look up the Frameworks Institute and study the programming that they very obligingly put on line, including their staff videos, you’ll find they explain that once the progressivists have set someone’s framework, they become “immunized” to seeing things any other way. No, there is only one way to combat groupthink of the magnitude we are facing, and that is to enable people to walk away.

    Albert O. Hirschman wrote a lovely little book in 1970 called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Economics professor Rajiv Sethi reprises its central messages in a blog post here: http://rajivsethi.blogspot.ca/2010/04/astonishing-voice-of-albert-hirschman.html. While you’ll note that Hirschman does not address systems (as opposed to organizations), he did do a lot to explain WHY the phenomenon of brainwashing has to exist within a system that is compulsory: simply put, the less able dissenters are to leave, the more totalitarian an organization has to become to manage with dissenters trapped inside.

    Deborah Frieze recently gave a TED talk in which she, unconsciously I think, does a lovely modern take on the principle of Exit: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/How-I-Became-a-Localist-Deborah. Don’t be put off by the title or the examples: her central premise is brilliant.

    My own efforts, much as I blog and engage on social media or in person, are thus focussed on two things, because the source of power this dying system (I used the term “zombie organization” in one of my own blog posts) is its control of two key resources: our money, and our children. In the US, five states now permit parents to not only take their children out of the system and find alternate ways to raise them, but also to secure their child’s portion of school funding. The only place these rights can be recaptured is in court, and so I have been, and will continue to go, to court for parent, child, and public rights vis-à-vis school system power. Because you’ll never convince enough teachers or even enough parents that they are listening to nonsense from the breathlessly ecstatic snake-oil salespeople as fast as the salespeople themselves can re-convince them of the nonsense (two guys named Couros alone have tens of thousands of followers on twitter, and arouse a chorus of enchanted echoes every time they tweet). But until law has gone completely down the progressivist toilet, there is some hope of convincing one judge.

    But one does need (still) to put evidence before a judge, and this post is an excellent example of that.

  6. Russell Bowen says:

    This is good stuff Greg. I would go further. To me there seems to be an awful lot of “research” out there and not all of it appears to be very reliable. I would encourage all readers to be very choosy about which “research” they reference. Too often I feel uneasy about the relatively small sample sizes that are used, the biased sample groups that don’t appear to represent the population accurately, the very basic analysis tools used, the non-repeated results and so on. The most worrisome activity in research is the over-stated conclusions that are sometimes drawn from results that are barely statistically significant. I would encourage everyone to only quote results from findings that avoid all of the above, and the most solid ground can of course be found when meta analyses of multiple studies from different organisations supporting the same conclusion can be found. If you can’t find multiple studies that support your hunch then why not apply for funding and conduct a study yourself? Good luck everyone!

  7. The unfortunate thing about education today is that groupthink is greatly encouraged and individual thinking is looked down upon.


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