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From an article in Newsweek on efforts to understand how to improve education in primary and secondary schools:

…[T]he scientific basis for [the choice of] specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal… “There is a dearth of carefully crafted, quantitative studies on what works,” says William Cobern of Western Michigan University. “It’s a crazy situation.”

… [T]he scientific vacuity of education research [into what should be taught in science classes] is …exasperating.

… Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote that when one compares the importance of education with “the frivolous inertia with which it is treated,” it is “difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage.” That was 80 years ago.

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7 Responses to “The Vacuity of Education Research”

  1. Rita Says:

    I’ve spent all year reading studies about education, and while, yes, they are on the whole kind of laughable, it might only be so because 1)people who can craft really good quantitative studies of anything don’t go into education, and 2)it’s really hard to quantify the effects of any kind of pedagogy, especially when most of them claim as their great benefit some kind of unquantifiable moral transformation. This is less true of science and math education, but unless you want only math and science taught because their effectiveness is easier to quantify, this seems to be a problem that is not going to be overcome anytime soon.

  2. david foster Says:

    If memory serves, there are a few ed-research results which do seem to hold up, including:

    1)It is better to teach people foreign languages at a very young age, and

    2)Teenagers should not start school at ungodly early hours of the morning if you actually want them to *learn* anything

    …neither of these results seem to have had much influence on practice.

  3. Matt Says:

    I could not agree more with the author of this piece. I am an European mathematician working in the US at a quite good research university; it happens that I have been involved in an education project / research involving high school math teachers and university professors of math education. I NEVER saw anything like that in my entire life, I could not believe my ears: the math education professors together with the teachers were claiming erroneous facts about even the most basic mathematics (for them an exponential or a rational function is the same thing). These people, including the education professors would not had a high school diploma in Europe, given their appalling command of the subject. Next time, when I have to teach poor American students math classes at the university I will understand why they know nothing and why they have not been used to study mathematics… with teachers like that!

  4. Jeff Says:

    I am gonna echo Matt here, but the writer of the piece is spot-on: “And where the studies were rigorous, the curriculum often flunked.”

    Either the study sucks and we don’t know if the curriculum is any good OR the study works to verify the curriculum isn’t any good.

    Rita’s point goes to a larger issue: the people that *should* or could be authoring these studies, and many times the people that should be teaching these courses, know far in advance to stay away from education. It’s a gulag.

    How do schools never get better? We can make small strides in our own classrooms but schools continually fail kids. What we need are some laptops and powerpoint. THAT’LL LEARN ‘EM GOOOOD.

  5. Dom Says:

    Teaching in modern high schools and community colleges (and, I fear, many universities) is to education what bloodletting was to medicine. Of course rigorous studies show that it fails utterly.

    Part of the problem is that the goals (measured by curriculum standards) are completely wrong.

    For example, math students are tortured for months if not years with manual solutions to quadratic equations, and their proficiency in doing so is part of government and international curriculum standards.

    But this is completely stupid. The correct way to solve quadratic, cubic, and quartic equations are these formulas, which are the sort of thing that should be trusted to a pocket computer anyway. And there is no reason to believe that high school graduates will encounter quadratic equations more often than any other equation.

    We just spend months teaching kids multiple ways to implement the quadratic formula because it’s short enough to do manually, but it still makes you look like you’re teaching or doing math, in the same way that bloodletting looks vaguely like real medicine.

  6. Jeff Says:

    Dom: this is also true in English studies. Crummy teachers give kids books that they must know they aren’t gonna read (Great Expectations to 9th graders!?!???) but they have quizzes, essays and assessments on file so they can easily look like they are teaching.

    The difficulty we are having with high school kids, especially rural kids where i work, is that they face a not very serious dilemma: to read a 400pg Dickens novel over several weeks or print out the sparknotes or wiki on the novel and gather the same information. I mean, kids at MIT and Stanford do it. Why would students with LESS ambition do any different?

  7. DM Says:

    An often-repeated cliché on math education faculty is that they are people who attempted to do math research, but failed.

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