Ignoring What Works in Education, The Umbrella Man, and The Challenge of Framing
Earlier this month I wrote in my GETideas blog about how in education we have a great talent for ignoring what the research out there says about what we know works in education, opting instead to largely continue with a status quo for which there is little supporting evidence of success at all. It's almost as if we strive for mediocrity in the face of proven excellence:
For example, formative assessment – student-initiated, self, and peer assessment – is far more effective at raising test scores than teaching to the test. Not putting any grades on student work at all, strictly limiting feedback solely to comments, is the most effective means of students eventually gaining top scores.
Go Google it and ye shall find.
Yet I haven’t heard one piece of discourse on formative assessment in the U.S. in 2011 that actually shows an understanding of what it is (the description is nearly always the precise opposite). And I do not know of any schools, anywhere, that have a policy that says that no student receives a grade until the examination (and I would love to be corrected on this).
Those making the decisions nearly always fall for the trap set for them: Our minds are built for ignoring the facts.
George Lakoff, the political strategist, sums this up most eloquently in the first chaper of his book, Don't Think of An Elephant (you just did, didn't you?):
When I teach the study of framing at [UC] Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: “Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant.” I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame.
When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on T.V. He stood before the nation and said, “I am not a crook.” And everybody thought about him as a crook.
Since writing this post, I've seen other examples of framing getting in the way of seeking out the facts that explain things, and of the facts not being as appealing as the frames through which people have already chosen to interpret an event. Really getting to understand how people frame seems key to helping move educators and education departments forward in adopting practices that the facts tell us work better than the status quo.
Take, for example, President John F Kennedy's assassination. This whole event, for large numbers of people, is framed, along with sadness, with the words "conspiracy theory". Thus, when The Umbrella Man was noticed on the street at the point of the assassination, despite the fact it was a beautiful day not requiring a black umbrella, people assumed that he was somehow part of the plot, providing many lavish explanations as to how so.
What emerged years later is a factual explanation and, as the author who coined the phrase The Umbrella Man puts it, a cautionary tale about frames:
- How are frames of those you're trying to convince to change their approach to teaching and learning getting in the way of adopting what we know works best?
- What is it works best, in fact?
- What challenges do researchers have themselves to overcome before educators start paying more attention to what they say works?
- And what's the role of the teacher action researcher to start definining the agenda of what is known to work best?
- Should it always be the PhDs that tell the teachers how to teach? Should all teachers strive to be researchers? Do you need to be a researcher to know what works best?