Backfire effects

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There is a gap between intention and effect. For some, intent is enough. If only we are pure enough of heart then all will be well. Realists like me, however, want to know about the effect. Yes, I understand that school children marching against climate change have virtuous intentions, but what do they actually want to achieve and how do they propose to achieve it?

This is an important point because good intentions are not enough. Sometimes, good intentions simple do not translate into a positive result. Worse, they can even backfire, exacerbating the problem.

I have been interested in backfire effects in education since I first heard about the Cambridge-Somerville youth study. In the early 1940s, a group of at-risk boys were assigned mentors. The boys were happy with the mentoring programme, but when compared with a control group of similar boys who had not participated in the programme, the criminal behaviour, health and work outcomes were worse for the mentored boys. The project may have reinforced negative behaviours by providing a kind of validation.

At the time, I compared this with the possible ‘Matthew effect‘ of differentiated instruction. We differentiate work for students with the best of intentions, but if we end up inadvertently setting lower expectations for less advanced students by, for example, asking students who struggle with writing to present their work in a different way, these students will never be able to catch-up with their peers. Instead, they need a targeted intervention.

In my recent post on teaching about racism, I wondered whether use of the term ‘white privilege’ might backfire for some white students. This is an emotive issue and I attracted some criticism, as well as some outright misrepresentation, simply for engaging in the subject as a white man. In contrast, few people commented on the backfire hypothesis and yet this was central to my point.

In a link on that post, Pendry, Driscoll and Field (2007) write about diversity training for adults and, in particular, a workshop known as ‘Walking Through White Privilege’:

“This exercise was developed by McIntosh (1988) to raise whites’ awareness of invisible privileges extended to them and denied to people of colour. Participants in the training session line up on one side of a room and respond to a number of statements (e.g., “I can easily find a doll for my child that represents his or her race”) by taking a pace forward if they agree (i.e., have the privilege)… Typically, there are some very strong negative feelings and thoughts expressed from those left behind (e.g., anger, tears, disbelief). Those on the other side of the room, predominantly whites, typically express the guilt that they feel about being privileged and/or anger at being blamed for privileges extended to them through no ‘fault’ of their own.

Hence, one can see that the exercise may not merely raise White awareness of privilege, thereby reducing negative inter-racial feelings. Instead, and as the established body of social psychological research noted above suggests, highlighting intergroup differences can backfire in terms of reducing positive intergroup feelings and behaviour (e.g., Gaertner, et al., 1993; Hewstone, 1996). For example, groups may become defensive and in doing so increase their cohesion by denigrating the outgroup (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).”

They go on to point out that some more recent research – bear in mind that this was 2007 – ‘qualifies the above gloomy conclusions’ before suggesting that any effect may depend on a person’s initial level of ‘white identification’, with a greater level being associated with more negative outcomes such as an increase in some forms of racism. Given the likely differences between adult participants in diversity training courses and cohorts of school kids, as well as the differing levels of expertise of teachers and trainers, this should at least make us pause for thought.

There has also been some discussion among proponents of evidence-based teaching practices about the possible backfire effect of ‘mythbusting’. This is the practice, common on Twitter and in blogs, of pointing to factual studies that contradict widely held beliefs among teachers, such as the belief that different students have different ‘learning styles‘. The claim is that mythbusting could potentially entrench views. However, there has been some more recent research  by Wood and Porter (2016) that has attempted to replicate some of the studies that this proposed backfire effect is based upon and the replications have been largely unsuccessful. As Wood and Porter state, “By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments,”

This perhaps leads to an interesting hypothesis.

It may be the case that interventions are more likely to backfire when we try to tinker in what psychologists term the ‘affective’ domain – students’ feelings and perceptions. If we stick to presenting factual information, including facts about the views and beliefs of others, and allow students the space to assimilate these for themselves, backfire may be less likely to occur.

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So long, Zig


This weekend saw the passing of Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. He was a giant among educators and a true social justice warrior. By that, I mean that he dedicated his life to improving outcomes for the disadvantaged, not that he was some great wet lettuce who opined about emotional labour and set his critics three books to read before he would discuss anything with them.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Engelmann took part in the largest educational experiment of all time – Project Follow Through. The aim was to give disadvantaged kids the best possible start to their education. The planned U.S. government funding was cut by congress, so what was intended initially to be a large scale intervention was stripped back to an experiment. The idea was that of ‘planned variation’. Different groups would develop their own programmes and implement them in different centres. Outcomes from the different programmes would then be compared in order to see which was the most effective.

Engelmann and his colleagues developed the Direct Instruction model. This is not to be confused with just any form of explicit teaching. The Engelmann model had unique features that drew upon a specific theory of instruction and, controversially, employed the use of scripted lessons. Apparently, scripting the lessons was never the original intention, but the first teachers involved in the programme kept going off piste.

Direct Instruction was the clear winner of the Project Follow Through experiment. Despite being labelled by researchers as a “Basic Skills” programme, it was the best performer in terms of higher order cognitive skills, such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving, as well as the affective domain of student self-esteem. This is despite the fact that many competitor programmes were explicitly set-up to focus on cognitive and affective skills – most of these actually had a negative impact.

This evidence has been largely dismissed by the educational establishment. Because it was so big, Project Follow Through was also messy and so you can poke holes in the methodology. You might think that this would prompt academics to set-up more rigorous trials of Direct Instruction and the alternatives, but they have been strangely reluctant to do so. This means that much of the further research on the method has been conducted by Engelmann and his small group of Direct Instruction advocates centered on the University of Oregon. This then provides another line of attack for those who wish to dismiss the research.

Why is it so important to dismiss Direct Instruction? It is inconvenient to the dominant ideology of educational progressivism or, latterly, constructivism. Who cares about kids’ life chances when there is an ideology at stake.

This means that an independent school like mine will make use of Engelmann’s programmes, but his work is either unknown or dismissed in the schools and kindergartens he was trying to help.

I think all of us would like to leave the world a better place than we found it. Zig Engelmann certainly achieved this, but I cannot help feeling that it could have been even better if more of us had listened.

Skipping school to save the world

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Each year I live in Australia, the natural disasters mount and appear to worsen. Every spring, as the bush fire season approaches, we make our preparations.

I am aware of the impact of climate change, but also that I am part of the problem. I drive a petrol car and I fly to the UK to see family and friends.

Nevertheless, there are some reasons to be mildly optimistic. Solar energy has taken off in Australia and is looking even more worthwhile now that battery storage has become viable. My next car may be electric, powered largely by the southern sun that glints off our roof. And one day, I hope, there will be industrial plants that brew carbon neutral aviation fuel.

But these are largely market-based solutions, even if they are eased by subsidies and tax breaks. Otherwise, the politics of climate change is a mess. The intransigent wing of Australia’s governing party recently blocked an extremely modest set of proposals, slaying their leader in the process. They are so torn on the issue, and voters are so frustrated, that the party may not survive the next election, where defenestration is a clear possibility.

Britain, with its binding response to the Paris climate agreement, looks positively progressive in comparison.

What would it take to make more rapid progress? What could governments do if they were so inclined? One answer would be a hike in taxes on fossil fuels, with revenue used to subsidise renewables. Any government that took such measures would face a backlash. We must remember, for instance, that it was an increase in fuel tax that sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement in France.

Therefore, those protesters who wish to push for a more radical response to climate change need to do the calculus. They need a clear plan for exactly what measures they want to see implemented and they need to somehow make it more painful for governments to not implement these measures than to implement them.

What does that require? Probably a mass mobilisation across a number of societal groups; something along the spectrum towards a general strike, depending on just how radical are the protesters’ proposals.

In this light, British school kids skipping school on a Friday to make vague demands that the government declare a ‘climate emergency’ does not really cut it. It is not like miners or nurses going on strike. It’s not really a ‘strike’ at all because nobody is inconvenienced and nobody loses any money. The only potential losers from a withdrawal of student labour are the students themselves, although this will depend greatly on the quality of the education that they have left behind.

Yes, school students could form a part of a very powerful protest movement. If that movement had clear demands and created enough inconvenience it could have an impact on climate policy. For instance, a planned campaign of peaceful civil disobedience that involved stopping traffic or preventing access to petrol stations would make a far bigger point. If the students did this on a Saturday then nobody could claim it was all just an excuse to avoid biology class.

I’m not saying they should do this, of course. I am making a claim about what they could do and how this would be more effective, assuming the intention is to have an effect and not to make an empty, symbolic gesture.

And as teachers, I think it is important to maintain some objectivity about the rights and wrongs of the issue. It is not for us to attempt to manipulate children into protesting about the right issues. It is for us to provide young people with knowledge of the world in all its contradictions, including truths that may be inconvenient. That way they can participate as democratic citizens with their eyes wide open.

Because those who are old enough to protest, are old enough to be criticised for doing so. That is liberal democracy.

Should we teach school students about white privilege?

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A few years back, I taught at a school in London. My senior physics students were highly able and so we organised for them to go on a trip to Cambridge University. When they came back, I had a chat with two of them about their experience.

At this point, it is necessary to note that one of these students was from a Somali background and the other was from a Nigerian background. They told me about their accommodation and the talks they had attended. Then they told me about going to a souvenir shop and being followed around by the shopkeeper.

I became angry. They laughed. I was horrified that they laughed.

White privilege‘ is the concept that there are certain privileges associated with being a white person in a society like Britain, the U.S. or Australia, privileges that white people are often unaware that they possess. Peggy McIntosh, an American academic, likened it to an invisible backpack of unearned assets. In this case, it was the privilege of being able to walk around a shop without being the subject of suspicion.

It is debatable whether such privileges are specifically white or whether they might better be described as majority group privilege. I taught in Uganda for a couple of months in the summer of 1997 and felt conspicuous the entire time. Some Ugandans would call ‘Muzungu!’ after me as I walked past and others would approach me and ask me for money. Clearly, this was a far different experience to that of my students in Cambridge, yet there may be some similarity in that I could never quite relax – I was always conscious of myself and the colour of my skin.

Proponents of the concept of white privilege would argue against the idea that it might apply to any majority group in a society by pointing to the history of European colonisation and oppression of other peoples. They would argue that white privilege is a facet of a wider system of structural racism. White privilege and colonialism are therefore interrelated.

So, should we bring this concept into the high school classroom? If we do, we need to be conscious of how it may backfire.

One effect of white privilege is that white people tend to think of themselves as just ‘people’. They are not particularly conscious of their own ethnicity. By emphasising concepts of white privilege we therefore raise that consciousness.

Perversely, this is exactly what far right extremists would like to see – a heightened sense of identity among white people.

Clearly, teachers are not going to suggest white privilege is a good thing, but students are not sponges. They exist in a milieu of voices and influences and our intentions in presenting such concepts are not always what matters most.

For example, Implicit Association Tests are a form of psychological test that are used to try to gauge a subject’s level of unconscious bias. Participants are typically asked to quickly associate genders or skin colours with different qualities such as ‘logical’. It is a matter of controversy as to what these tests actually measure, but there is some evidence that simply completing the test can increase participants levels of racial bias, presumably by highlighting the existence of different groupings.

Encountering a concept such as white privilege may bring to the surface an identity that has previously been latent in white students. It may also provoke a reaction.

Such a reaction is sometimes described as ‘white fragility’ and often involves people insisting they are not racist or claiming to be ‘colour blind’ i.e. that they do not take the perceived race of other people into account in any way. In one sense, we might consider this a good thing, but advocates suggest it is a barrier to white people confronting the reality of structural racism.

I wonder what would happen if we attempted to teach a high school class about these concepts. Should the teacher try to demonstrate the existence of systemic racism by talking about colonialism and repression? Systems are abstract concepts and, having highlighted our white student’s’ group identity, we risk talking about systems while they hear an argument about themselves and who they are.

And this could lead to as much resentment as it does introspection.

At the height of the British Empire, my great grandfather, aged ten, was harnessed to a trolley, hauling coal out of one the Earl of Dudley’s mines. I suspect many white people have origin stories similar to mine. Even if it were reasonable for the sins of the ancestors to be inherited by their descendants, my conscience is relatively clear on the British Empire.

I understand that we are not supposed to take these arguments personally, but when you impose a group identity upon students, you place them personally into the narrative in some way. This may make them feel guilt or regret, but it may also give them a sense of being unfairly treated; a sense of grievance. Again, white people with a heightened sense of white identity coupled with a sense of grievance are exactly what the far right needs.

There is an alternative way of addressing issues raised by white privilege and colonisation that perhaps avoids many of these risks. Rather than turning to sociology, we can focus more on history.

The school curriculum should, and often does, explore many aspects of history that includes themes of repression. Young Australians need to learn about the European colonisation of Australia, of the massacres of indigenous people and of the stolen generations, among other issues. By learning about the civil rights movement in the U.S., or apartheid South Africa, students can learn that freedoms and benefits are not always equally shared and that some groups try to dominate others and accrue benefits for themselves. Throughout such teaching, students can be asked to identify with a range of actors, regardless of perceived race, without being forcibly situated somewhere in the narrative. They can be asked to consider the actions and motivations of people as people.

I have argued previously that the school curriculum should consist of that which has endured. I don’t think white privilege is a concept that can yet claim to have stood the test of time. It is contestable and may have unpredictable effects when we try to incorporate it into our teaching. For now, we would do better to focus on history.

Support for group work from cognitive load theory

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Cognitive load theory provides limited support for the use of collaborative learning. If a task is sufficiently complex, it will generate a high intrinsic cognitive load that may overwhelm an individual. However, if this cognitive load can be shared between members of a group then the intrinsic cognitive load experienced by each member will be reduced. The process of sharing will introduce its own cognitive costs associated with communication between group members and so, in theory, the conditions that favour group work should be those where these ‘transaction costs‘ are smaller than the intrinsic cognitive load that they replace.

Sharing cognitive load in this way has become known in cognitive load theory as the ‘collective working memory effect’. It is relatively new and there is not yet a huge amount of experimental data that tests the idea. A couple of key studies (here and here) were conducted by Kirschner, Paas and Kirschner in the biological domain of gene inheritance.

In the first of these studies, high school students either worked individually or in threes. The students who worked individually were each given all of the information. The students who worked in threes were each given only an third of the information required to solve the problem. For instance, one student may be told that the mother’s eye colour is blue, a different student may be told that the father’s eye colour is brown and the third student may be told that the gene for brown eyes is dominant over blue. Importantly, the students were not able to make a note of this information. Instead, they had to combine it to come up with a solution. Finally, the students were tested individually on both recall and transferring their understanding to a range of different situations.

In this study, students who worked in a group expended less mental effort to achieve the same outcomes on the transfer test when compared with those who worked individually – this comparison of effort to outcome was described as learning ‘efficiency’. However, the pattern reversed for the recall test and students who worked individually were more efficient. In the second study, working individually was more efficient for low complexity tasks, but working as a group was more efficient for high complexity tasks.

Retnowati, Ayres and Sweller tested the effect of collaborative learning for solving mathematics problems. They compared working individually with working as a group when both conditions involved learning from worked examples. In this case, working individually was superior. However, when they replaced the worked examples with problem solving, working as a group now led to better performance. Nevertheless, studying worked examples was still superior.

These experiments support the predictions of cognitive load theory, but it is important to bear in mind that there is a much wider literature on collaborative learning from outside of the cognitive load theory field. When compared to individualised learning, collaborative learning has repeatedly been shown to provide an advantage. However, considering the experiments above, it is worth returning to these studies and asking whether the concepts being learnt were simple or complex and whether the comparison condition made use of worked examples.

And everyday uses of collaborative learning are probably very different than the controlled versions used in studies. For instance, in my experience of real-world group work, students usually decide for themselves how to divide-up the task. The phenomenon of social loafing, where some group members slack-off and allow others to taken the burden, means that cognitive load will not necessarily be shared equally across group members and this may further erode any advantages of group work.

When faced with a complex learning tasks, the best approach may be to try to break it down into smaller components and develop worked examples. However, in situations where this may not be possible, such as in a complex professional learning environment, then the use of collaborative learning may be beneficial.

Don’t drop GCSEs

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Robert Halfon is a British politician. He chairs the Education Select Committee, a committee made-up of members of parliament whose duty is to hold British education ministers to account. Halfon has been quoted as suggesting, “Get rid of GCSEs, which seem to me pointless. Instead there should be some kind of assessment to show how far you’re progressing.”

This would be a bad move.

GCSEs are the exams that sixteen-year-olds take in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no equivalent exam in Australia and when I first moved here, I was struck by the difference this made. Whatever their flaws, GCSEs act as a focal point to sharpen the curriculum in in subjects other than maths and English. Without them, notions of cross-curricular fluffiness can take hold. Moreover, there is nothing compelling teachers and students to develop habits of homework and revision. In fact, the reverse motivation can be in place, with teachers seeking to simply keep the kids and parents happy. There is then a sudden lurch into exam subjects at age 17, where students are all-of-a-sudden expected to be able to be disciplined and self-regulated.

GCSEs provide a training ground and a pretty good one.

Halfon also suggests, as many have done before him, that we should focus on assessing progress.

This is not a bad idea where it is possible. Most notions of progress involve students repeatedly doing the same thing and seeing if they improve at it. It makes a lot of sense if you want to improve running an 800 metre race, but education is not as contained as this. It is more complex.

Gaining new knowledge is a form of progress – how do we measure that? GCSEs are pretty good.

And as I pointed out in today’s Australian, “Imagine I write an essay on Of Mice and Men and then an essay on Ulysses. How can we compare them? Of Mice and Men is a simple novel to grasp and Ulysses is ­famously dense.”

The answer is that systems that are distorted around measuring progress, do not ask students to write about Ulysses, the ask them to write about which animal makes the best pet or what they did at the weekend. They do this because these systems picture writing as a skill, divorced from conceptual knowledge, as if it were a single thing like running 800 metres.

And that impoverishes the curriculum.

Don’t listen to Robert Halfon. Keep your GCSEs.

Who should teachers trust on education research?

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After a brief hagiography from the principal, the education expert strode onto the stage. “Research shows…” he began, before introducing the assembled teachers to his take on this year’s new thing. But all was not well. Somewhere in the audience sat a teacher with a Twitter account. “I don’t think the research actually does show this,” she thought, “but how can I tell?”

Dan Willingham wrote an entire book on the topic of who to trust on education research. It is a difficult issue. The only way to really think critically about research is to read research papers, learn about the methods used and make up your own mind. Some of us are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do this, but it is impractical for the vast majority of teachers sat in those start-the-year staff meetings.

I am going to offer my own thoughts. Probably the clearest sign that an expert knows what he or she is on about comes from the way they present their arguments. They will tend to take a position on something and they will explain how the research supports that position. However, they will also highlight the limits of the research and the common criticisms of their position, perhaps with their own answer to those criticisms. They will stay focused on the research itself and not try to support their argument by appeals to political sentiment or by attacking the character and motivations of their opponents.

Where will these good experts work? It should be in our universities, but one of the sad ironies of modern education is that education academics often reject the scientific method in preference for qualitative arguments that are essentially based on ideology. At the same time, education academics pour scorn on think-tanks, claiming that you cannot trust the research of think-tanks because it is ideological.

It is best to get off this merry-go-round. Universities produce some good research and a lot of rubbish. Think-tanks don’t have the power of peer-review through the academic journal system to draw upon, but they often shed light on issues that are ignored by universities and that are of more practical relevance to teachers and policy makers. So we shouldn’t get too hung-up on where our experts work, we should pay most attention to what they say.

So back to those points. Why should an expert take a position? Taking a position makes the expert vulnerable because it means that someone could potentially demonstrate that he or she is wrong*. It means that the expert’s own arguments can be analysed and so the expert is making themselves available for scrutiny. By avoiding a position, an expert is suggesting that your ideas and opinions are open for scrutiny, but not theirs. This happens more than you might think in workshop-style sessions or coaching models of professional development that mirror constructivist teaching methods.

It is possible to take a position but see no need to support this with evidence. This can be very effective if it is somehow implied that all teachers who are hardworking, kind, ethical, contemporary or who possess some other desirable virtue must agree with the expert on this particular point. It is effective because by challenging the expert, you become an outcast lacking in that virtue.

I remember a conference I once attended where speaker after speaker derided ‘transmission teaching’. I do not know what they meant by this, but nobody questioned it and I suspect many of those in attendance accepted this as fundamental and obvious, similar to the idea that gravity pulls us downwards.

And anyone who has researched anything in depth will be familiar with the best criticisms of their position. Failing to mention these criticisms is a bad sign. It may signal hubris or it may suggest that these criticisms represent a fundamental threat to the expert. Neither of these is a good sign. If an expert does not volunteer some of the most obvious criticisms then ask what they are. The reaction will be telling.

Finally, it is worth distinguishing between trusting an expert and accepting that they are right. We can all be honestly mistaken. The state of education research is such that there are many holes and nobody can be sure of anything. We are all trying to tidy this mess up into something that makes sense and most of us will have committed errors in the process.

An honest expert knows they are likely to be wrong at some level. A bogus expert will run in the other direction from ever admitting this possibility.


*This is also why it is pointless arguing with someone on Twitter about an issue if the person you are arguing with claims to take no position on that issue. If this happens to you, bail.