Don’t Pee on My Leg and Call it Science!

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Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.


Also published on Medium.

Comments

4 Responses to “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Call it Science!”
  1. Joe D. says:

    So much of this rings true, especially the high school science part! 🙂 I do have to jump in and defend Community Colleges though against what I (might have mis-)read as a dig. Community colleges educate more students than all other systems of higher education combined, and affordably besides. Our system – at least in California – is radically accessible. We empower students of all kinds, serving veterans, English language learners, reentry students, working parents, communities of color, students with disabilities, students seeking career advancement and technical education, and transfer-bound students alike. Unlike faculty at the majority of 4 year institutions, who have publishing and research responsibilities, community college faculty are first and foremost teachers, and teach for the love of the craft and the love of the discipline.

  2. Conn says:

    I am somewhat bemused by this. I’m a longtime fan of your work, and also have a degree in science and decades of science instruction under my belt. I am a fan of your programs and models because my lifetime experience has led me in those directions, but also because current science research on how we learn supports it. Student agency? Neuroscience confirms it’s important. Unstructured play? It’s not only important, it’s critical. Strong, supportive relationships between students and teachers? Foundational. Interest-based learning? It’s how the brain works. Everything in your Makerspace book and Constructing Modern Knowledge workshops are backed up by science.

    “What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?” I have been to quite a few conferences in the last ten years, and I have not seen a single presentation supporting any of those practices (with the exception of the interactive whiteboards). I have not read a single study during that time supporting any them, and I read quite a bit. To the contrary, I can tell you that the most current research would argue against every one of them (including the whiteboards). The science classrooms you describe would be a perfect example set of the most discredited forms of science teaching. Hang around with the thousands of science teachers at an NSTA conference, and you’ll find precious few that practice or advocate for teaching that way.

    Speaking of which, “research” and “science” are not synonymous terms. Most educational research has been bunk because it was not done with any scientific framework. What is key in approaching research in a scientific way is not accepting conclusions at face value; you always look at the methodology first to see if it was done in a credible way. Then you look at the evidence itself and compare it to other evidence to make an informed judgement as to what seems most likely.

    What that should mean (but doesn’t always, because we’re all human) is that if the evidence is credible and substantive, we don’t reject the conclusions simply because we don’t like them or they contradict our deeply held beliefs. It also means not stopping with “common sense,” because we have centuries of experience have demonstrated that today’s common sense is tomorrow’s debunked old wives tale. It used to be common sense that sitting students in rows and lecturing to them was the best way to teach, and that caning them when their attention wandered was the best way to get them to pay attention.

    Creating powerful learning environments is art, craft, and skill. Every day is an attempt to learn more and create better opportunities for students tomorrow. I absolutely want to know the best evidence for what empowers my students, and science is an important part of that. An awareness of my own limitations is a necessary part of my own life-long learning. It should be for all educators.

    In the end, I find it confusing that you attack science and research (again, different things) so aggressively, when in reality it is that much so supportive of most of what you advocate for. Most of the underlying ideas driving the modern ed reform movement are completely contradicted by the evidence, which is why it’s been so unsuccessful in making substantive change. And where your beliefs don’t align with the research (handwriting is important neurologically, learning styles are not), I would hope for a response that is more substantive than simply dismissing the evidence because it’s not “common sense.”

  3. Bet says:

    It is really important to double-check all the scientific literature that you stumble upon. Recently there is too many pseudo-science resources and many people tend to beleive them.

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