Thursday, September 16, 2010

A solution that is neat, plausible, and wrong

When I was pursuing my teacher certification, nearly all of my education classes stressed that teachers should teach to different learning styles. The most prominent theory of learning styles is the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which says that there are nine different kinds of intelligence, including the traditional lingual and logical-mathematical, as well as musical, inter and intrapersonal, and existential, and that people learn best when information is presented to them via their strongest intelligences.

It’s an interesting theory that’s relatively simple to grasp, and it’s not terribly difficult to craft a curriculum around the ideas. Unfortunately, there’s not really any empirical data to show that it — or any of the other learning-style theories — are true. A review of the available literature on learning styles from 2008 found no evidence to support learning-style theories and some evidence that contradicted them. From the study’s abstract:
Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information.

However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.

So, why does a completely unproven theory dominate teacher training? Part of the answer is that education, like most industries, is subject to fads that seem fascinating and obvious at the time but later prove to be ineffective. However, I think that the government’s near monopoly on schools contributes to the problem.

Because education is dominated by one entity, it is extremely static; therefore, while it may be very difficult for a renegade idea to take hold, once it has been ensconced as revealed truth, it will remain in curricula long after it is proven false.

I don’t know for certain that a more competitive education industry would be less susceptible to incorrect theories, but at the very least it would allow for innovators to come in and demonstrate new and possibly superior methods of teaching. Some will be better and some will be worse, but it is only through that kind of trial and error that we can advance — not by clinging to unproven dogmas.


Merit Pay: A Start toward Making Sure Teachers Follow Their Job Descriptions

Howls of protest are coming from Los Angeles teachers whose evaluations on their effectiveness in raising student test scores have been published in the Los Angeles Times. But that is to be expected, for teachers are among the very few professions who feel that they can write their own job descriptions and evaluations. The statement of one teacher, that she was proud to have ranked “’less effective,’” because that showed that she chose to “’teach to the emotional and academic needs’” of her students was quite telling.

Since when did teachers’ bosses (the citizens) ask them to teach to students’ “emotional needs”? And how are “academic needs” apart from what students can demonstrate on tests: that they have acquired a body of knowledge and set of skills? But teachers have rewritten their own job descriptions under the cloak of “professionalism.”

Furthermore, the emotional needs get mixed up with the “academic needs,” so that teaching becomes a part of manipulating students’ feelings under the cover of “critical thinking.” Not surprisingly, once they are led in a certain direction by emotional pressure, students’ opinions match those of their teachers, now known as “facilitators.”

I saw such arrogance displayed when I spent two long days with social studies teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual meeting in Atlanta last November. A theme repeated over and over was how to impart “social justice” lessons in the classroom while officially meeting state mandates. Not once did I hear anyone voice a concern with raising test scores or teaching history and civics objectively to students.

We are told that teachers work very hard, but what was expected of them as demonstrated in a workshop called “TCI strategies on the question, ‘How did change and conflict shape the American West?’” didn’t seem all that difficult.

Following the dominant mantra that the teacher should be “the guide on the side,” rather than the “sage on the stage,” the teacher conducting the demonstration hit the play button on the stereo so eleventh-grade students could listen to the song “Home on the Range” and then speculate in their little groups about the “feelings” of various victims and victimizers.

Another workshop was led by a “shadow senator” from the District of Columbia and an “activist.” They told teachers how to get K-12 students involved with lobbying and street protest for D.C. statehood. You can read my full report here.

But this is the kind of thing that teachers learn in education schools at the undergraduate and graduate level. It was displayed by an education professor from Clayton State University, who responded to a local test-altering scandal in an op-ed, in which she questioned the importance of knowing such things as the dates of the Civil War.

As I learned from perusing her and other education professors’ syllabi, teacher education students are expected not to know the subject matter they are teaching but to think and feel “deeply.” The class requirements consisted largely of journal entries, “response” papers, and “deep” discussions in the classroom.

What most of us would see as a topic for discussion over a couple of margaritas is the basis for certification and then the advanced degrees that catapult teachers into higher salary brackets. The other way to get a pay raise is to just stay on a job that is protected fiercely by the union. Nice work if you can get it.

Merit pay alone will not right a topsy-turvy system. As in politics, we need more citizen activism. There needs to be much more oversight of curricula. Teachers themselves should be tested on the subjects they teach, for studies show that their knowledge translates into student success. We should take advantage of technology—not the attention-inhibiting, expensive razzle-dazzle “learning” programs—but cameras in the classroom. In addition to being able to view classrooms on tape, citizens should be invited to sit in on classes and evaluate.

Teachers unions will object loudly, citing such concerns as privacy, the First Amendment, “professional standards,” etc. But other employees know that even their email correspondence on the job is subject to scrutiny by employers and that their raises are based on performance. Why should it be any different for teachers?


A Tory government that panders to the Left

Britain has RINO types too

Middle-class families could go to the back of the queue under explosive plans to tear up the schools admissions code.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is proposing to allow academies and a new generation of 'free schools' to select pupils on the basis of their family finances, with the poorest being given priority.

They would be allowed to discriminate in favour of pupils who qualify for free school meals - those whose household income, including benefits, is below £16,000 per year.

It is hoped that this would bring a halt to 'selection by mortgage' in areas where admissions are determined chiefly by the distance between home and school, meaning parents who can afford to buy a home nearby gain an advantage.

But it is likely to trigger a backlash from Right-wing conservative MPs and the party's traditional middle-class supporters, who are already angry that the coalition Government has ruled out any return to selection by ability.

Academies already take a higher proportion of children on free school meals than the national average, partly because under the previous Labour government they were set up in areas of social disadvantage.

However, charities including Barnardo's argue that fewer pupils from poor homes get into England's best schools because their parents are often less able to navigate the admission system.

Mr Gove's proposal will be seen as an attempt to appease Liberal Democrat members of the coalition, who have pushed existing plans to boost funding for underprivileged children. The Education Secretary believes the change, which will require legislation, will provide a vital boost for social mobility.

Sources close to Mr Gove stressed that any change would not be 'prescriptive', and schools would simply be permitted to admit children entitled to free school meals in preference to others if they wished to do so.

Mr Gove envisages the introduction of new 'free schools', run by charities, business, or even groups of parents, which specialise in admitting disadvantaged children and get more taxpayers' cash for doing so.

A source close to the Education Secretary said: 'This could actually help middle-class families, because at the moment there are parts of the country where the schools are totally useless and children who are struggling are causing discipline issues and other problems.

'The central aim of the Government's education policy is making opportunity more equal. We have one of the most segregated and stratified education systems in the world and social mobility went backwards under Labour. 'We want to emulate the success of charter schools in America which explicitly target their attention on poorer children.'

But Margaret Morrissey, founder of the parents' lobby group Parents Outloud, warned that the rule change smacked of social engineering and would be seen as 'unacceptable' by many. She said it was becoming ever more difficult for children to get into their preferred schools, even if they had siblings already there.

'Parents who work hard and do everything they should do will get shunted to the bottom of the list,' she said. 'If the Government thinks this is the fair and decent thing to do, it isn't. This assumes every family on free school meals needs help and support, which is patronising. Not many people can pay tens of thousands of pounds to buy houses in catchment areas, and fewer and fewer people are in a position to do so.'

Some grammar schools have already indicated they wish to see the admissions code relaxed to allow them to take into account the social background of applicants. But Robert Mccartney, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, warned such a move would lead to more discrimination.

He called on the coalition to allow more schools to select pupils by ability as the fairest admissions method, saying: 'I fervently believe that a working-class child in Britain in 2010 should have exactly the same opportunity I had in 1948 to go to grammar school. Everyone accepts selection was the greatest engine of social mobility.

'The conservatives are rowing back on education. They are playing the socio-economic card which is disguising the real defects in our system. 'This policy would be discrimination of a kind. Children from whatever background with a good result on a selective test would be discriminated against.'

But Dr Lee Elliot Major, director of research at the Sutton Trust, an education charity set up to promote social mobility, said: 'We think this is a good idea. It's good for social mobility if you can have balanced intakes. 'All of our studies show the top-performing schools are unrepresentative of their local communities.'


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