The beautiful simplicity of saying what you believe to be true

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Deans for Impact have released a blog post that is intended help learning scientists influence education. As with many publications by Deans for Impact, it seems to have been well received. However, I always react badly to pieces that position the authors as the adults in the room and my problem with this article runs deeper still. I am going to have to dissent.

I am, of course, sympathetic to the aim of convincing teachers that learning styles are a myth. However, I feel much the same about the Deans for Impact post as I do about this piece, the aims of which I certainly do not share. So what is my issue?

I don’t believe that proponents of evidence-based education should be in the business of consciously trying to spin concepts in order to manipulate their readers. At a basic level, it is wrong because it treats the intended audience with something between disrespect and paternalism.

And I think there are important practical consequences. The authors of the Deans for Impact article seem to think that the polarisation of American politics has been driven by people expressing frank opinions that challenge the identity of others. I’m not so sure. A key component is the rise of relativism – my truth versus your truth, your facts versus my alternative facts – and this has flourished in a culture of PR and spin.

When people realise that experts and politicians are trying to manipulate them then they react against that and they stop trusting them. In a world where everything is spun, everything is spin and we are free to pick the truth that suits us.

The best way that learning scientists can serve the broader interests of education is to communicate what they believe to be true in as clear and lucid a manner as possible. People respect honesty and honesty builds trust. The conscious manipulation of others is the domain of self-help books for unsuccessful business people. That’s where it should stay.


18 thoughts on “The beautiful simplicity of saying what you believe to be true

  1. chrismwparsons says:

    So… rather than use ‘obvious attempts’ at persuading people, we’re better-off persuading them by appearing to not try to persuade them? Is this more honest?

      • chrismwparsons says:

        Isn’t your statement above exactly the kind of relativism you bemoaned in your post? My interest was most piqued by their phrase “resistance to scientific authority”. Do you think science has authority when it comes to how people teach? Or can adult teachers just make their minds up about that to?

      • How is my comment relativism? I don’t think it’s relativist to not expect to bend everyone to your will, even if you are right. And belief in truth does not imply a belief that you are 100% correct about everything.

      • chrismwparsons says:

        Thanks – I’m interested in the boundaries here, as clearly Deans for Impact have an almost ‘crusader’ believe that science has a special ‘authority’ in this, and you also strongly support your own beliefs with scientific experimental evidence in order to persuade proponents of ‘discovery’ approaches (for example) that you are right.

        You are also one of the most regular and insistent bloggers about the same repeated message, so you certainly come across as believing that you actually are indeed right, rather than that you simply have a certain set of beliefs, which others might or might not share, about your specialist field! (And quite determined that your message should get out there).

      • Oh, I’m quite accepting of the fact that I’m probably wrong about a lot of things. The debate is about collectively inching towards the truth. If I fail to persuade then that might move us closer to the truth if it’s something I’m wrong about.

      • chrismwparsons says:

        Thanks Greg – I’m personally a fan of Thaler and Sunstein’s ‘Libertarian Paternalism’, and think there is scope for this in education theory.

  2. David F says:

    Hi Greg—yes, but…in the US, of course, we have the climate change “debate” that is instructive in understanding how our dynamics might be different from elsewhere—in the US money is everything in these debates–he who has the most cash to throw at an issue can often sway the public and the discourse, regardless of the science.

    For climate change, many of the large fossil fuel companies threw obscene amounts of dollars to muddy the waters, challenge the science and try to convince the public that there was still some doubt. They also influenced one of our political parties to such an extent that now most of that party’s leadership doesn’t believe in human caused climate change—they think it’s a hoax, hence when Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Accords, they cheered.

    For something like learning styles, there is a vested interest by entities which stand to gain from pushing “personalized learning”, for which learnign styles is tailor-made. The Gates Foundation and other ed tech groups have been pushing this narrative, using learning styles as one of several dubious planks in a platform designed to put more devices into students’ hands and monetize education.

    It doesn’t seem that these challenges are present in Australia and the UK, but we face them every day, with things from voucher programs to charter schools challenging to accountability efforts being pushed and lobbied by those with ideological agendas and deep pockets.

  3. Stan says:

    The issue here is that until the appearance of social media those persuading only had to convince a few people in positions of authority. The results in education are too vague and any parent that cares enough can mitigate the problems for their only children more easily than they can influence systemic problems. The appearance in Canada of, this blog and other groups on social media will hopefully raise the level of scrutiny of what passes for well evidenced truth.

    As Greg points out if his standards dropped in terms of honesty, and I would add completeness in addressing the best counter arguments, his would not be part of the wedge to push things in a better direction.

    • Stan I agree.This is the first time people in the education establishment have faced scrutiny, criticism and social media is forcing much into the open. Long over due.

    • Tara Houle says:

      Absolutely. It is not our job to “tell” others what to believe, but open discourse and critique from others should always be welcomed in these circles. Up until recently, it was all done behind closed doors. Nice to see the sunlight filtering through sometimes…

      • Correct; for a long time it was the edu-establishment’s word taken as gospel. Mischaracterizations of traditional teaching were accepted and never challenged. The “research shows” argument was used plenty, citing much flawed/questionable research by people who have been taking in each other’s laundry for years. Now there is push-back with counter-examples and descriptions of how these shiny new trends are really working (i.e., not working) in the classroom. Countered of course by the edu-establishment with the famous: “It’s because they’re not doing the reforms correctly.”

  4. Pingback: The beautiful simplicity of saying what you believe to be true | Barry_Garelick

  5. I quite like the Deans for Impact article as it tries to address an important issue – how to get educators and educational authorities to acknowledge scientific evidence around learning. A popular view among staff (including some SMT) at my school is that one can find research to support any approach to learning so what is the point in engaging with it? I think this view has two origins – a lack of understanding of how science progresses and establishes consensus and also that teachers have been bombarded with an endless amount of professional development which they often suspect is questionable and is in fact based on philosophical or ideological grounds only.

  6. Mike says:

    I think the problem in this whole area is the redefinition of the word science, or rather the use of the word in contexts where it just doesn’t belong. In education, for instance, woolly qualitative research drenched in confirmation bias (which constitutes a huge whack of the research conducted by contemporary education academics and would-be academics, in my experience) simply cannot be put in the same category as experimental research in the hard sciences. But due to the current deification of the word research and its conflation with “science”, the media in particular now report every new dubious, ideology-driven, unreplicated “study” as the final word on any particular subject. And it’s hardly surprising, in this environment, that when teachers inevitably find that this doesn’t match the reality, they lose a good deal of respect for the soi-disant “experts”. In short, if the “experts” are complaining that they don’t get no respect, it’s largely because they are habitually assuming a level of authority that is not theirs to assume in a “social science”.

    There’s a quote from Tom Lehrer that sums it up well, I think: “The problem with the social sciences is that they spend far too much time trying to justify the word ‘science'”.

  7. I don’t believe that proponents of evidence-based education should be in the business of consciously trying to spin concepts in order to manipulate their readers.

    I don’t think so either. I think that proponents of evidence-based education should make different decisions about WHAT to focus on than they currently are. Rather than debunking — which I think is mostly a waste of a proponent’s time — they should focus on helping build understanding of scientific ways of understanding the mind or of learning (or of learning specific content). In other words, focus less on “learning styles is false” and more on “here is how science understands learning.” This isn’t about making your message more palatable. It’s about actually investing in building understanding in the profession.

    While, in general, I liked the Willingham and Ansari piece about fidget spinners, the comment that I left there exemplifies a lot of what I’d like to see different about scientific communication:

    The problem that I see is that advocates invest their energy in arguing for scientifically-correct opinions, beliefs, takes, etc. What I’d like to see is an investment in explanations of scientific models, systems, schemes, theories, as I think this has a better chance of leaving a mark on the education profession, and is ultimately more valuable.

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