Guest Post: How Do Parents Tell "Good" Science From "Bad" Science in Education?

You're a parent who wants your child to thrive academically. You read about a new software program that claims to boost math scores in middle schoolers in less than one month, and you wonder if it would help your child's mediocre math grades. Your school is trying out a new math textbook that claims to be "research-based." Your kid is struggling in reading, and you see an ad on a parenting website for a reading tutoring program that is "brain-based."

What's a parent to do?

As a parent, you don't have the time, the expertise, or the access to the research base of studies upon which to judge these claims. Or do you?

Parents who have more than one kid in multiple grades, or who have paid much attention to education research in the last decade or two, know that the field of education is notorious for proclaiming the astonishing results of the latest fads and newest learning methods or teaching techniques. As an English teacher who started teaching in the late 1990s, I've studied, been trained in, and taught whole language, phonics, writing workshop, portfolios, invented spelling, strategy-based instruction. There were programs and "research-based" practices that went along with each of these educational strategies. I also taught history, and this field also has its own jargon, research, and techniques. By the end of my decade of teaching, I got tired. Tired of sitting in faculty meetings that adopted the latest approach to addressing how kids learn, constantly replacing the old with the new, with very little reflection or data about what was successful and what wasn't.

And now as a new parent, I feel constantly inundated by products that purport to help my son's learning and development.

Even as an "expert" -- a doctoral candidate in education -- I'm often overwhelmed. The emotional appeal of these programs and strategies are crafted to hit right to the heart of any parent, of whatever age. ("My child was just like yours. And then we developed and used this technique, and his progress has been remarkable! He's been transformed!")

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Virginia who has been widely critical of how neuroscience is applied in K-12 education, explains a technique that may be useful for both parents and education professionals in evaluating the merits of a new educational tool, program, model, or approach. Even as an education researcher, his "shortcut" technique has already changed the way that I approach what I read and study in education.

In his book When Can You Trust the Experts? How You Can Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, Willingham outlines four basic steps in recognizing good educational science:

1. Strip it and flip it: Cut the educational claims down to their core and identify what is being promised as an outcome from this technique. In other words, remove all the emotional baggage ("I know what it's like to have a child with this problem..."), and try to examine the most basic premise of the research. Attempt to create a statement from this research, such as "If I do X (use this program), then there is a Y % chance that Z will improve." For instance, from the claims, see if you can find any evidence that, in exact probabilities, if you're looking at a software package for your child, "If my child uses this program for one hour a day, there is a 20% chance that he will improve his reading comprehension skills."

Additionally, see if the claims can be considered in another, less positive way. If a reading technique promises a 80% pass rate, consider whether the 20% failure rate is actually better than the current statistic.

2. Trace it: Examine the qualifications and motivations of those who are trying to persuade you. Beyond academic credentials, what has this authority figure accomplished to validate his area of expertise? Does he or she have any incentive -- financial or otherwise -- to be making these claims about this educational product?

3. Analyze it: Consider why an educational research claim is being made and whether this claim is backed up by verifiable evidence. Also, think about whether the claim affirms or contradicts your own experience about the topic and your own understanding of basic research. Is there a control group in the study? Does the claim make any practical difference in the lives of kids, as opposed to statistical difference?

4: Make a decision: Decide whether it matters to you whether the claim is scientifically valid or not. Once you understand the consequences of adopting the change or deciding to do nothing, you may still -- as a parent -- evaluate that your child's goals may be aligned with a new strategy.

If nothing else, thinking about educational findings in a new way -- being skeptical of new innovations and approaches -- can liberate you as a parent. For me, I no longer feel guilty bypassing the "brain-based" toddler toys for my son and heading straight for the simple blocks and the board books.    

Today's guest post comes to us from Jessica Smock, a research fellow, former cirriculum coordinator and teacher finishing up her doctorate in educational policy. Check out her website and new blog School of Smock where she takes on research related to education and parenting from her perspective as an educator and yes, mom. In other words, a refreshing addition to the parenting blogosphere.


Awesome Mom said...

Wonderful post!!! Really it all boils down to Does this work for this particular kid?

Breastfeeding Without BS said...

I'm excited to hear Dan Willingham has another book out--I loved his Why Children Don't Like School, especially his 10-year paradigm thing and his debunking of the stupid "learning styles" thing. Will definitely be reading this new book of his. I feel like the quality of research in the educational theory field is very poor, to be honest.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

BWOBS, sounds like you'll like Jessica's site then!