Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who deserves a seat at the table?

From ProCon.or
When it comes to discussions about issues in education, I would like to think I interact with an educated mind. It is important for me to try to understand different points of view without necessarily adopting them, and I hope that everyone engaged in the discussion will do the same. This was tested last week as I interacted with a Canadian mathematician involved in a group interested in influencing education policy in his country (some of the interaction can be seen here).

The exchange came about because one of his colleagues recently published a commentary focusing on improving math scores in Canada. What to Do about Canada's Declining Test Scores offers three recommendations but I was most interested in the first piece of "advice":
As a rule of thumb, teachers should be encouraged to follow an 80/20 rule, favouring direct instructional techniques over discovery-based instructional techniques. 
The rationale provided includes references to multiple studies that support the use of direct instruction. However, the commentary ignores any research that disagrees with the premise that direct instruction is the most effective method of teaching.

In trying to understand the perspective of this group of mathematicians, I got this regarding the use of qualitative research:
This stance reminds me of my brief time in debate during high school, where people disparaged the source rather than addressing the content. I don't like debates like this because they focus on producing winners and losers instead of solutions. Ignoring an entire branch of education research is limiting, especially if you want input into making decisions about education.

Which brings me back to the question, "Who deserves a seat at the table?" I would say everyone does (although, people who engage in antisocial behavior ought to have it pointed out, and if it continues be shown the door). Extending the metaphor a bit, this does not mean that cooks ought to feel obliged to try to meet every guests' suggestion about the meal or its preparation. While some guests may have more expertise than others in cooking, the cooks are the experts on their own kitchen and their own skills. The cooks need to decide what advice to take. Certainly, this might result in some unhappy guests, but it is likely impossible to satisfy everyone given that the table is open to all.

The same goes for teachers. Too many outside "experts" are telling teachers what ought to be going on in their classroom. Whether the experts are saying discovery-based or direct instruction, teachers ought to remember Hattie's (2012) overall findings:
The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers. (p. 14)
Therefore, I encourage teachers and students to think of themselves as researchers - experimenting to determine what is and isn't working to foster learning and why. It should be noted that numbers on a test do not provide enough data to answer these questions.

The Hattie quote comes early in the text. In regards to the remainder of the book, or any other advice related to classroom instruction, I would suggest teachers heed Aristotle - feel free to entertain the research/recommendations of others but do not accept them if they won't improve the teaching and learning in your classroom.


  1. Hi, I want to say that I love your blog and I think this is a great post. I absolutely agree that debates / discussions should be focused on pushing our thinking and that criticism should be thoughtful. That is, identifying a problem is generally not helpful. Instead, someone who offers criticism should spend some time trying to understand the issue from multiple perspectives, be willing to accept the issue may be more complex than a surface scan would suggest, and try to offer solutions - whether the solutions address a way to more deeply understand a problem or address a way to actually solve a problem.

    That said, I will point out an interesting parallel I saw in your post this week. You wrote that you would point out anti-social behavior expecting it to stop. May I ask that you would do more than just point out the wrong behavior? And instead think about how to understand it more deeply or suggest potential solutions.

    I was in a math background originally and now I'm in a math ed graduate program. I come from a family where we are constantly watching the people around us to see if our behavior is acceptable and, based on people's reactions, we try to adjust our behavior. Interacting with strangers can be terrifying. I only know that my siblings and parents also engage in this behavior because I've been in counseling for a few years and brought it up individually with each member of my family. Each of us thought we were strange and the only one struggling with this kind of problem. It is nice when people point out my wrong behavior or my wrong reactions, but it is more helpful when people are open to a discussion about potential solutions - because otherwise I feel like I'm only improving my (to borrow from math ed lexicon) procedural fluency - memorizing rules for how to act like I'm "normal" - rather than developing conceptual understanding - how to understand the reasons for particular actions instead of just mimicking them.

    As someone who is really trying to learn how to not be anti-social, I have to say that it is a difficult struggle. My advisor and other math ed faculty have explicitly told me that I shouldn't try to change or to understand, saying "people in their 20s can truly change themselves but you're too old." This is so hurtful and unhelpful.

    I don't know what bad genes I have or what experiences I missed that have made me find social interaction difficult, but I try. And so - (I know it isn't always possible) try to see that antisocial behavior, too, can be more complex than is superfically seen. And please try to do more than simply pointing it out and assuming that the person can change but is only being bad.

    (I'm so sorry if this was offensive, I hope it is not. I struggled with whether or not to respond to the post, but I felt it was important to say. I'm so sorry.)

    1. You have nothing to be sorry about. I thought you raised this point respectfully, and I appreciate you raising it to my attention. Maybe anti-social is the wrong term. I was thinking about actions that violate boundaries and continue, even when there is a specific request that they stop. Does that make more sense, or am I still missing something?