I closed my last post with a quote about research. It’s a topic that deserves more attention, since “research-based” has become one of the most ubiquitous catch phrases in the reform movement. It’s interesting to me that the same camp that has all but pushed science instruction out of the K-5 curriculum with its emphasis on testing math and language arts has become so obsessed with the scientific method as the guiding light for reform.
My undergraduate degree is in biology, and science has always been one my favorite academic disciplines. During my studies I developed a healthy respect for the scientific approach to problem solving, but I also developed an understanding of the limitations of such research. My professors made a point of hammering home lessons on how to interpret the conclusions of scientific studies, and to be skeptical of any results that have not been replicated repeatedly and independently.
One of the classic lessons I learned is the mantra, “Correlation does not equal causation.” The idea is that just because there is some kind of association between two things doesn’t mean that one is the cause of the other. For example, a study on car ownership and longevity might show that there is a “link” between owning more expensive cars and living longer. That doesn’t necessarily mean that owning a Ferrari makes you healthier, or that owning a clunker will put you in an early grave. In fact, a more reasonable explanation would be that people who can afford Ferraris can also afford the best healthcare, and/or have more leisure time to exercise, and/or have the education to make wise choices when it comes to diet and lifestyle. Unless the researchers find evidence of the actual mechanism by which one thing affects another, a study can only show that there is some unexplained connection, and even that needs to be demonstrated repeatedly to be considered reliable.
Acknowledging the complexity of the system being studied should be a key part of interpreting and weighing the findings of any research study. Teaching and learning (and pretty much any social endeavors) are incredibly complex processes, influenced by an incalculably huge number of variables. A study might be able to show that a particular curriculum or instructional strategy correlated with an increase in test scores in a particular school or district, but what does that really prove? Are there other explanations for this result other than the quality of the curriculum? Maybe scores increased because of the quality of the teacher training that accompanied the curriculum. Maybe administrators put more pressure on teachers in the area of math because of the huge investment in the new curricular materials. Maybe scores increased because teachers knew that the district was doing the study and they did more test preparation with their kids. Maybe they increased because the curriculum more closely resembled the format of the test. Then again, maybe it was something totally unrelated, such as demographic shifts in the district or a more nutritious lunch program that started in the same year.
Ok, so even if these types of research studies aren’t as conclusive as we might like, isn’t it better to make decisions based on shaky research than on no research at all? I say no, especially if it leads to an overconfident view that dismisses the complexity of the task at hand. Decision-making at the classroom level requires a balanced approach that takes multiple factors into account, including the prior knowledge of the students, their cultural and socio-economic background, the instructional modes with which they are familiar (and have had success), and the strengths and style of the teacher. In my experience in private schools (as well as my current public school), my fellow teachers and administrators almost always use this kind of balanced approach to decision making. Though the teachers don’t always agree with every final decision, they at least understand the process and have opportunities to make their case and have their opinion considered. In short, they are treated as professionals.
In contrast, in much of the public school system it has become commonplace for administrators and politicians to use research studies as a tool to strong-arm teachers into casting aside curriculum and instructional strategies that they have built up over their whole careers. Insistence on “research-based” methods has become one of the hammers with which the so-called reformers have squashed the independence and creativity of our teachers. You may have used a lesson successfully for the last ten years, but if you can’t produce a double blind study showing how it raises test scores, it’s out the window. This is one of the reasons public school teachers are feeling increasingly undervalued and demoralized. The situation is even worse when they know that the new research-based approach is a poor fit for their students, but their professional opinion carries no weight.
The idea of trying to apply science (or pseudoscience) to societal issues is not a new one, but there are plenty of examples in history that should make us skeptical about the wisdom of such an effort. Obviously I wouldn’t equate the current fad for research-based methods in education with movements like social Darwinism or eugenics, but I do see a couple interesting similarities. In particular, many of the strongest proponents don’t really seem to understand the science that is supposed to underlie their positions. Even worse, these questionable interpretations are being used by some in positions of power to disenfranchise another group. You may be able to argue philosophy with your principal, but how can you argue with SCIENCE?
I’m not suggesting that there’s no value in educators and curriculum developers keeping abreast of the findings of brain researchers, or that there’s no room for well-designed studies in educational research. My point is that the results of such research should be viewed with an understanding of its limits, and in the context of the complexity of the learning process. Those of us who navigate the murky waters of education simply don’t have the option of relying on science to point the way. We must develop our educational philosophy, build our skills, strengthen our teaching personas and even hone our instincts. Yes, teaching is more of a craft than a science, and you should be wary of anyone who tries to tell you different. They’re either trying to force their perspective on you, naively grasping for an easy solution to a complex problem, or they’re selling you something.