Mixed Messages And Simple Truths

On Monday, I heard Dylan William say that computers don’t make a difference to learning in the classroom. On Thursday, I heard Gerry White say that technology is responsible for a 12% increase in achievement. Both asserted that their statements were backed by research.

Dylan William said on Monday (and Friday), “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not, however, entitled to your own facts.”

John Hattie said something similar back in 2011 when he was in Adelaide, “I’m sorry but you can’t argue with the research.”

Over time, we as educators have become used to listening to and reading from gurus with simple truths. So many of us feel that we are well below the expertise of these edugurus (and I don’t mean to single out the examples above as being the only ones going around) so we pack into venues, feverishly copying dot points from slideshows, handing over cash to buy the book and match up the dispensed wisdom against our own learning, our own classrooms and schools to see if we are headed in the prescribed direction. I am guilty as anyone of being part of this phenomenon but it is interesting how connecting to lots of non-edugurus has helped me spot the mixed messages and view this dispensed wisdom through a more critical (some might say cynical) lense.

Another example from Monday. When I first arrived at my previous school, there were a few teachers who were using the Brain Gym program pushed by a teacher who considered himself an expert on the matter of brain research. He had attended Brain Gym training, had gone to other Brain based PD (quite popular about ten years ago) but something about the whole program didn’t sit right with me. I got some evidence that this was so when Ewan McIntosh published a blog post in 2007 that queried some of the bogus science and research that was at the core of the program. He was of course being informed by others in his network, so he published further posts and pointed to the growing evidence. But if back in 2007, I told those devotees of Brain Gym of Ewan’s findings, I would have been scoffed at.

“What would some blogger know about Brain Gym? He’s not an expert. It’s based on up to date brain research.”

So I kept my mouth shut. But then Dylan William canned Brain Gym on Monday as well. Suddenly, teachers knew for sure that it was bogus, because an authoritative voice had said so. Not one of their colleagues, not some mysterious blogger from Scotland but someone who is currently viewed by our Australian educational community as an expert. We, as educators, are so conditioned to the notion that our knowledge isn’t expert enough, that our day to day experiences aren’t enough to grasp the bigger picture that we concede the higher factual ground to those on the stage or behind the podium.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a post against people like Dylan William or John Hattie who bring us their research, their findings and their advice. What they bring to us via their research, their books and their presentations is extremely valuable.  But I hope that as you sit in a keynote with a phone, tablet or laptop that connects you to the motherlode of information, the internet, you have enough faith in yourself to conduct some research of your own. Confront the mixed messages, don’t take the word of any guru as gospel, and look for the truths that emerge as you do so.

Just think of it as a form of information literacy.

Adapted from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/41818779@N00/98309338 by Robert Scales.

9 Responses to “Mixed Messages And Simple Truths”


  • Hi Graham …. nice. You have hit a number of nails squarely on the head for me. Education has more snake oil salesmen (and women!) than a frontier town in a 1960′s Western movie.
    I would also put many programmes we put whole parts of our schools through into this category as well …. literacy and perceptual motor ones spring to mind. Why do we insist on remediating an entire cohort of our school system? You can guarantee that it will be unnecessary and a waste of time for many, and at the same time too hard for many of those who are actually the rationale for it because it doesn’t target their specific needs.
    Blind faith and zealouts are dangerous in any field. When you go to any course or listen to any ‘expert’ it pays to have your crap detector turned up to its highest setting.

  • Hi Graham,
    The initial claims as reported by you are meaningless, ie. “Dylan William say that computers don’t make a difference to learning in the classroom” and “I heard Gerry White say that technology is responsible for a 12% increase in achievement”.

    Any technology at all can be skillfully used or not. It mainly depends on the teacher. Were those speakers really making such highly generalised claims or was their more context to what they said?

    Someone did mention something very interesting about John Hatties research. His data is meta-analysis. He doesn’t evaluate the various studies but just aggregates them and draws conclusions from that. Once again this doesn’t really differentiate b/w good and bad teacher practitioners. I haven’t read Hattie’s original work so my second hand comment in this cases is not worth much. I suppose I agree with much of what I have read about Hattie not so much because of the research but because it simply conforms to my own experiences.

  • @Greg I suppose we do have to cautious so that we don’t become so cynical and critical that we mentally shoot everything down in flames.

    @Bill The statements were pretty much presented as statements of facts – but Gerry’s slide had references to his sources of research, which in my role as critical researcher, wouldn’t take a lot of effort to Google and check out. I do think that many teachers do just take a forceful statement from an “expert” as truth – and then their thoughts turn to how to address that “fact” rather than mentally interrogating it to see if action is even required.

  • Wholeheartedly agree,Graham. Been around long enough to have seen previously touted super programs based on years of research later debunked and replaced by the next great idea. Research is great in inspiring thinking about improvement but it is never definitive. The latest research that is presented to us, no matter how great its reach and effectiveness, is still just based on a small sample comparatively speaking. There will always be a counter example, we just may never have it heard while its opposition is the prevailing wisdom of a current administration. That’s not a criticism, just a reality. I love studying research but always cast a critical ( some say cynical) eye over it. After all I consider that I’ve been researching for 25 years. It’s called my teaching career. I’ve learnt a lot and just like other bloggers sometimes we have as much right to share what we believe based on our experience as someone who is conducting the latest research. It’s a great conversation to have and it should be had more often. Sometimes we change for the sake of change.

  • The statement, “you can’t argue with facts” is somewhat arrogant in that it seems to suggest we not question research because it’s some holy ground of infallibility. I’ve used William’s stuff and Hattie as well. I think they do good work but as I blogged about recently, we need to be able to do research on our own, understand for ourselves if indeed something works or doesn’t work.
    http://ideasandthoughts.org/2012/09/24/your-research-matters/

    When you make a broad statement like, “computers don’t make a difference to learning”, that should trigger a number of follow up questions and concerns such as the obvious, “Define learning”, “What do you mean by computers?” “Explain your data” and so forth. Too many take a statement like that and go off on all kinds of paths stating they have the research to back their claims.

    Great point about authority too. I’ll listen to the gurus, experts, full time researchers but I’m equally as interested in the classroom teacher and how they’re finding their own research as well as implementing others. I do, however, take exception when the gurus try and dismiss any other findings as less valuable.

  • I remember getting particularly canned over that statement on Brain Gym, to the point where some people in the Audience at ULearn07 couldn’t probably remember what I had actually been talking about. My statement was based on research from both literature reviews and teacher-led action research. In New Zealand and Australia, there is almost a fetish for listening to the views of ‘authoritative’ and preferably foreign speakers. Especially those with books out! ;-)

    I don’t, personally, get it, since there’s as many bright sparks in Australia as anywhere else – and as many mediocre teachers who wouldn’t remember the last time they had read research, let alone tried it out themselves.

    The statement “research says so” is patronising, and we must make every effort to show the trail back to the findings. I do my best, through the blog. Unfortunately, those who normally can me for some of the more prescient bits of research that I cite probably don’t take the time out to read some random Scottish blog! ;-)

    • I’d interested in your views, Ewan, as to why you think that Aussies and Kiwis are so drawn to non-Antipodean speakers. Is it some sort of cultural cringe thing that we have going on? By the way, your model of working alongside teachers rather than lecturing to them is a much better way of putting research into action!

  • Speaking from the perspective of a college student currently in the education program for secondary social studies, this article enlightened me. I feel exactly the way you said, “inadequate” as an educator, because instead of trusting my own instincts, I know my initial thought will be to seek out the research of someone else. Not that that is a bad thing, but ultimately, scientists can dig up all the research and chalk up as many percentages and numbers as they want, but they will never fully understand until they’ve placed themselves in the midst of a classroom for a decent amount of time.

    • Hi Tootsie, thanks for leaving the comment at my blog. Interestingly, the keynote speaker at one of my recent events, Gerry White, is a Research Fellow at ACER (Australian Council of Educational Research) and says that when he wants to get in touch with current educational technology thinking and work, he says that what he can obtain from blogs of educators is more relevant than more official structured university standard research. So those of us using blogs to document grass roots thinking and practice are the “new experts”. Time to stop feeling inadequate!
      NB.I’ve also left this response over at Tootsie’s blog.

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