May 6th, 2010

atheist teacher

What burbles out when my brain idles

Couple threads rolling in my head. I finished watching Connections. The final episode is a peculiar summing up. Along the way, we see Burke hanging out at Homer's workstation (about a minute in, here). Anyway, he stresses the rapid and accelerating nature of technological innovation, and how it may well kill us all if we're not too careful. He tests out some strategies for dealing with it, and they all have their problems.

But a couple little segments stick out (at least, as I remember them several days later, now that they've rolled around in my head). One, where he discusses how the fast nature of change in our world breeds a desire for novelty. And the second, that technology has become so complex that much of it is only really understood by particular experts in particular fields. But in democracies, the people get some influence on how science and technology are used, whether or not they understand them. And if it really does take too much effort to acquire knowledge and understand a subject, then all one has left is emotional appeal, gut instinct, opinions that can be as tenacious, and as devoid of rational basis, as one's affinity to the local ball club. And thus we wind up the Greens and Blues shouting at each other over climate change, or vaccination, or stem cells, or what have you.

Dovetailing with this is an article from Newsweek on research on how different teaching methods affect science learning, specifically the difference between direct instruction and inquiry learning, which is not only being pushed by state standards, but sounds similar in nature to the kind of exploratory math that I railed against recently. Anyway, a blinded, controlled study found essentially no difference between the two approaches. Furthermore, a metastudy of 138 studies on inquiry-based science instruction found that more than half were not blinded or controlled. "Not only did most studies have 'marginal methodological rigor,' the analysts found, but the trend was 'toward a decrease' in rigor."

A couple things occur to me:

We're probably not doing a very good job teaching science to our kids. And so lots of them will be making their decisions based on their gut feelings.

Since I'm not very knowledgeable about education research, I'm just gonna have to go with my gut feeling and say that the state of education research is appalling. I know it's probably not ethical to raise kids in Skinner boxes, but surely the use of reasonable controls and randomization is easy enough to do. Changes in curriculum and methods will blow in the direction of the latest fad, unless we actually work at collecting data that means something.

Finally, the trend toward less rigor in tests of inquiry-based education reminds me of something else. Many of the big serendipitous 'discoveries' in parapsychology are followed by intense efforts to replicate the results in other labs. In order to peg it down some, these studies are often more rigorously controlled than the conditions under which the initial discovery was made. And then... the effect goes away. This has been called the Shyness Effect, coined by physicist John Taylor to explain why children could only bend spoons with their minds when he wasn't looking. Speaking more generally, in labs that are rigorous, the effect vanishes and they lose interest. Other labs relax the controls and start to find interesting things again, and keep publishing. So what you see is studies of a particular paranormal claim becoming less rigorous over time.
In the article, Begley notes that "where the studies were rigorous, the curriculum often flunked." It would be a shame if the fad for inquiry-based education were as founded in fact as spoonbending. I'm not saying that all inquiry-based education is a failure, but without rigorous testing, how will we ever know?