Scientists should be disabused of their pseudoscientific beliefs about learning

When I first met the physics professor, it was explained to him that I was a science teacher. This prompted something of a reaction. As an aside to the real purpose of the meeting, he proceeded to tell me how school science teaching should be improved. He explained, as if he was the first person to ever think of the idea, that students should learn through doing experiments and that they would remember concepts much better if they discovered them for themselves. He related an anecdote of a hands-on lesson he taught to secondary school teachers who visited his lab at the university. I couldn’t be bothered to argue back. We had other matters to address, limited time available and anyway, where do you start with such ignorance? But I think I missed an opportunity.

It can be baffling.

Science professors are often at the forefront of campaigns against pseudoscience. They will warn us against alternative medicines, promote vaccination and tirelessly point to the evidence that climate change is real. But when it comes to education itself, they often believe the woolliest load of old bunk. Why?

Firstly, I don’t think many of them realise that there is evidence about the most effective approaches to teaching and learning. I think they assume that it’s all a matter of opinion and, to be fair, hard evidence is the Cinderella of our education faculties.

Secondly, they suffer from a number of biases. The curse of knowledge means that they underestimate the vast amounts of specialist knowledge they possess and therefore downplay the role of education in imparting that knowledge. There is also evidence that people often remember concepts and ideas without remembering how and when they learnt them. Again, this could lead to scientists underestimating the role of schooling in this process. Perhaps they think they just quickly picked-up concepts as and when they needed them or independently from books.

It is also the case that professional scientists are likely to be outliers. They will have a high level of general intelligence and a high level of intrinsic motivation. An investigation that they imagine will be motivating for school children may be nothing of the sort. It is true that students generally like doing experiments, but it is not the case that this is always because of the science – sometimes students are motivated about playing with the equipment or having a break from reading and writing.

If you meet a profsplaining scientist, call them out. I did this with Brian Cox. I copped a bit of flak but I reckon it was worth it. If your scientist waxes lyrical about inquiry learning then point to the negative correlational evidence from PISA. If they show an interest in investigating further then send them to Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006), which does a good job of covering a lot of ground. Stay classy but stand your ground.

It would be great if we could persuade scientists to apply the same standards to educational ideas as they do to their own fields of expertise.

5 thoughts on “Scientists should be disabused of their pseudoscientific beliefs about learning

  1. Brain Cox, I am sure like some other academics of his age, has come a long way from his head banging days. I am not saying he is in the Raymond Baxter league yet but I detect signs of hope, albeit small ones. The problem is that, at its heart, Physics is the study of stuff you can only appreciate second hand. The last thing to do with the likes of Sir Godfrey Hounsfield who has helped gazillions (his Computer Aided Tomography Nobel Prize lecture is gentleness personified) is to call him out – I think the maxim is “Discretion is the better part of Valour”.

  2. I totally agree and I remember your ‘ discussion’ with Brian Cox over the summer. As a science teacher for several decades, some of my most negative experiences have been specification driven…… ‘ learners should design their own experiment to investigate….’ Even your bright young things destined for natural sciences at Oxbridge struggle with this type of task at 14 years of age. Fortunately this trend is not in fashion currently – thanks to Mr Gove (Did I really just thank him??)

  3. Sadly, today’s economic imperatives are not conducive to attempting to falsify one’s own theories. Even peer review–a concept first advanced by Ibn al-Haytham over a thousand years ago–is now of limited value. For instance, I can’t imagine anyone advancing their career by questioning the significance of AGW or suggesting that another ice age would have a far more devastating effect on humanity. However, if Thomas Kuhn is right, all we have to do is wait a while: sooner or later, everyone will get bored, and the paradigm will shift.

    I recently falsified one of my own pet theories, based upon a quite substantial amount of research indicating that automatic recall of number bonds frees pupils’ working memories to address higher order processes. We designed a test of automatic recall of number bonds for multiplication along with 12 questions parallel to those on recent KS2 arithmetic SATs, and it was administered to 353 Yr7 and Yr8 pupils from an urban comprehensive. The correlation between good recall and good arithmetic was much weaker than we expected, with significant numbers of outliers. It seems that efficient use of algorithms and high CAT scores enabled pupils with poor recall to score well on the arithmetic test, whereas some pupils with very good recall scores (but low CAT scores) did poorly.

    However, an unexpected bonus was the finding that the only pupils who avoided gross errors on the arithmetic test were those who made very few errors at all (only one pupil got all 12 questions right, and 15 scored 11/12). Considering that all of the pupils attended ‘good’ primary schools, we’d expect them to be able to spot ‘unreasonable answers’, which is generally considered to be a key element of ‘number sense’.

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