The solution to education’s groupthinkPosted: July 24, 2016
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.