Expert or Grifter?

Who is coming to speak to the teachers at your school? Are they a genuine expert or a grifter?

Grifters are common in education – they are common everywhere and especially in the corporate world – often latching on to current preoccupations, such as COVID-19, to sell their magic beans. In my view, they are motivated by two factors:

  • Money
  • Ideology

Few people are cynical enough to openly chase money alone, and so the internal monologue of the grifter probably uses ideology as the justification for making money.

Schools may also draw on real experts to deliver professional development. So, how can you tell the difference?

The essential characteristic of the grifter is that their prescriptions are hollow. By contrast, experts are enthusiasts who are interested in working through all of the implications of the stuff they are talking about. This leads to two clear differences between experts and grifters.

Grifters will talk at an abstract level, avoiding details. They will talk in broad, sweeping terms. Their materials can be surprisingly shoddy. They will use the cold-reading technique of making motherhood-and-apple-pie statements that nobody can object to but that hoodwink people into thinking the grifter knows them and their particular situation. Citations will be absent or, on a relatively brief investigation, will seem to not entirely support the point being made. Grifters will eschew details.

By contrast, experts will lace their presentation will details and specific examples.

Due to the essential hollowness of the grifter’s position, they will avoid questions. This is aided by making vague, unfalsifiable statements that are difficult to question. Sometimes, the avoidance of questions is elaborate and overt, with the grifter creating a theological position, or generating an atmosphere, that means that questions about a particular issue or topic become inappropriate or offensive. Sometimes, it is more subtle – the grifter will present their ideas, ask people to discuss these ideas in groups while the grifter circulates, before the grifter selects groups who gave the right kinds of responses to feedback to everyone. Asking a question in such a format is awkward.

By contrast, experts are usually quite happy to address politely framed questions. They are genuinely interested in getting into the weeds of what lesson nine in a ten lesson sequence might look like because they are the person in the room who is the most interested in this topic and because they have nothing to hide. Experts are happy to say, “I don’t know,”. Grifters cannot, for fear the mask slips.

And be aware. This is not about sides. Just because someone is on your side of the argument, it does not make them an expert. There are purveyors of project-based learning who I would describe as experts, not grifters, despite my reservations about project-based learning. And if you look hard enough, you may find some grifters flogging cognitive science.


3 thoughts on “Expert or Grifter?

  1. It is imperative that you require data on the effectiveness of their solution. More importantly, not just the data they choose to show you. In order to drill down and judge the efficacy of their claims, a full and independent evaluation should be accomplished before you even think about entering into a contract for services. This is especially true if the claim is that what they propose will increase student scores in a particular subject. Working through a deep dive on data is not easy and it is not cheap. But, honestly, if your district is considering spending tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, wouldn’t you be OK with writing a service order for 25K to know if something works as claimed?

  2. Chester Draws says:

    Thanks, that helps clarify a few things that have been drifting around in my head.

    Due to the essential hollowness of the grifter’s position, they will avoid questions.

    Often annoyingly, in my experience, with “I’ll answer that at the end of the session” — which they don’t.

    How do we tell grifters before we get them in though? I tend to suspect anyone with a CV full of wide-ranging “interests” but no long-term precise field of study. And, like a lot of teachers, I harbour a prejudice against those that left the field after only a couple of years’ teaching.

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