Friday, 27 June 2014

The danger of a little knowledge (and a little dogma)

There’s been a great deal written and debated in recent times about the importance of teacher quality and the role this plays in improving learner outcomes.  Few would disagree, I think that teacher quality plays an important part in the overall mix with respect to student engagement and learning, though how much, of course is difficult to define and measure.

I had pause for thought this week, though, about the importance of “teacher quality” when so-called experts, be they academics (like me) or practitioners, are invited to take the podium at a conference and address an audience of teachers about current scientific understandings and so-called “best-practice”.

As an academic who is a former practitioner, I always value opportunities to talk to people who are at the coalface, whether in education, justice, health, welfare, or policy. When your work requires you to deal with the messy business of people’s everyday real concerns and distress, you gain knowledge, insight, and humility that no amount of data trawling and analysis could ever confer.  When presenting to such audiences, I always try to be conscious, therefore, of using language that is somewhat conditional and qualified. As an academic, part of my role is to “channel evidence” to people who don’t have the same access to primary research sources as I do, and are in many cases not equipped to critique its quality. As other academics will know, “knowledge” is fluid, testable, debatable, and modifiable. It needs to be handled with great care.

When my father told me (when I was about 10) that “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” I remember being perplexed about the notion that there could be any danger in knowledge. Older and wiser, I now understand the truth of these words and am reminded of them when I listen to (some) education “experts” present as facts, their particular dogma, ideology, or anecdotal experience. 

I witnessed this earlier this week, when listening to a fellow invited speaker at an education conference attended by about 150 teachers and other practitioners who work with young people who are either disengaged from education or are at risk of such disengagement. These teachers all appeared to be highly motivated and eager to improve their knowledge and skills. They listened with what seemed like great focus and engagement to a speaker who told them that

  • MRI studies show that “dyslexics[1]” use the right side of their brain when attempting to read, not the left
  • It’s important to understand the “learning style” of a “dyslexic”
  • Many dyslexics have so-called “Irlen Syndrome” and benefit from the use of coloured overlays.

I seemed to be the only academic in the room, which meant I felt like the proverbial wet-blanket at question time when I pointed out (politely!) that there is no scientific basis for the notion of learning styles, and nor for the use of coloured overlays.  I mentioned that teachers in the audience might find the MUSEC Briefings a useful resource for evaluating the claims made by proponents of such approaches but was met with only a very lukewarm response. I didn’t know where to start on the MRI issue so left that one right alone. I also have an intense dislike of disability-based descriptors for people – I doubt that anyone who has a reading problem would be happy to be defined in such a mono-dimensional way as “a dyslexic”- as if the term conveys all we would ever need to know about them. It’s about as unifying a term as calling someone “an asthmatic”.

I am sure you can see the problem – an engaging speaker has over-simplified a complex construct and offered charmingly straight-forward and accessible responses that seem to have good face validity, so of course well-intentioned teachers are keen to “buy”. 

However, just as we expect teachers in classrooms to be accountable for what and how they teach, we need to hold “experts” at conferences accountable for what they present as facts to those who operate at the coalface. I often say to audiences of teachers that I think what they do is no less significant for society than what medical practitioners do (in fact, in some respects……..yes, you know what I’m thinking….). As a community, though, we expect medical practitioners to think and behave according to scientific principles, not according to their particular belief-system, regardless of how well they seem to be able to package and present it to an audience. 

My dad was right – a little knowledge is most certainly a dangerous thing. 


[1] I have blogged on the problems with this term previously -