Refuting Every Point

It's not often that you get a serties of points like this just begging to be refuted:

> I don't think most of us want our dentists to be "out of the box" thinkers.

I do. I totally don't want my dentists practising the way they did when I was a kid, I appreciate the dentist who put "Where's Waldo" on the ceiling (this prompting one of my best insights about knowledge), and I think Nitrous Oxide and the iPod are the greatest boons to dentistry ever. All totally out of the box thinking.

> I don't believe that when teaching a pilot to fly 747s we encourage a "don't memorize facts, look it up" training.

Nobody wants 747 pilots to rely on memory. That's why pilots (and other staff) are given detailed checklists to follow. When new planes come on stream, or new procedures are implemented, we want the pilots to be "looking them up" instead of relying on remembering what they did when they were first trained.

> Do we really want the accountants preparing our taxes to take a constructivist route to learning new tax laws?

Yes. Tax laws change every year and there's not going to be anyone around to teach them. If they don't learn how to figure it out by themselves when they're in school, they will be hopeless as accountants - and will cost us money.

> Do we really want an engineer learning how to learn when she designs the bridge we travel over for work each day?

Yes. It's important to be alert for factors that might never have been taught in Engineering school. New materials with new strengths - and new weaknesses - are developed all the time. The engineer has to learn how to observe these new materials, to work in new environments - and to be able to pick up cues that may be very different from place to place. Not only that, engineers work for clients. They need to understand their needs and constraints. The first thing an engineer needs to do on any job is to learn how to learn everything he or she will need to complete the bridge.

> I shudder to think of a world in which hospitals were run like schools: every doctor allowed to do her own "thing" with no accountability or practices based on the best research and information available.

Doctors that simply follow procedure, no matter how "evidence-based", make the worst doctors. While there may be a great deal of similarity between one illness and the next, the reality is that every patient is different, and that the doctor has to make an evaluation based on the facts at hand.

That's not to say doctors are completely free-range, with no accountability whatsoever (though it certainly feels like it at times). Doctors, like teachers, are probably held more accountable than most other professionals. A doctor who loses all his or her patients will face the same sort of questions as a teacher who fails all his or her students. And actually - if doctors were as accountable as teachers,people would blame them when people become obese, develop genetic disorders, drive carelessly or drink too much alcohol.

> Every hospital does not need to be a research establishment, gathering data via "action research" related to any spurious brain-fart a teacher might have which could even remotely impact learning.

Every hospital does act as a research environment, participating in clinical trials, training interns through hands-on practise, monitoring reactions, effectiveness of procedures, and the rest. There's nothing wrong with collecting a lot of data and subjecting it to analysis, provided (a) privacy and security are protected, and (b) it's not used as a club to punish employees who had no power to control the outcome.

> Children are not rats on which educational experiments should be endlessly run. Until we have a body of evidence, hopefully gather by lab schools or non-commercial researchers, we ought to be following best practices as outlined by our professional organizations.

Children are lab rats on which endless experiments are run. Coaches try out new practice regimes, advertisers try out new commercials, toy companies test out new games, media companies experiment with new genres (and retread pop idols), clothing manufacturers try out new fabrics, and hospitals try out new treatments. There's no way to get the evidence other than by experimentation - demanding "best practices" with no experimentation is inherently self-contradictory.

> Educational technology experts may be doing both students and themselves a significant disservice by advocating a single, unproven approach to educational practices.

They would be, if that's what they were doing. But for the most part, if not entirely, education technology experts are not doing that. The things advocated by technologists - everything from serious games to social networking to online writing to immersive simulations - have been tried and tested. We know they work. We don't say 'everything should be a simulation' or 'all students must blog'. Nobody does that.

> Mr. Warlick and Mr. Richardson, I am a huge fan and appreciate the challenge. But don't discount the value and honor in learning a craft or a research-based profession and doing it very, very well.

Maybe think about how this craft was learned. Most teachers, although they went to school and university, learned much of what they know about the classroom is a slow, painstaking, hand-won fashion, from the time they were student teachers, trying things out with real students, to the time they were veterans, learning some new technology along with their students.

Every time a teacher faces a new class in September, the learning begins again. The students don't come with any 'best practice' manual (though if the teachers communicate well there might be some reports). What worked in a research environment might well fail with the current group - there's no way to know except to try.

> I want our schools so serve those who wish to be future plumbers, mechanics, and nurses as well as future politicians, bureaucrats and school administrators. Those folks who need a actual body of knowledge and skills that they can apply reliably and effectively.

There is no such thing as a "body of knowledge" that characterizes the education needed by plumbers, mechanics, nurses, politicians, bureaucrats and administrators.

If you even think about that for a moment, you see how ridiculous such a statement is. Take me, for example. I'm 50. When I would have been learning plumbing or mechanics or the rest, it was the 1970s. Back then:

- there were no PVC pipes in wide usage, aluminum wiring was just fine, asbestos was widely used for insulation and fireproofing, and building codes covered a fraction of what they do today. Even the knowledge of 'how to seal pipes' or 'proper drainage for a house' changed in that time.

- the '351 Cleveland' was the engine of choice, there were no electronics or computers in cars, ABS brakes didn't exist, and farmers used purple gas

I have written on numerous occasions that to learn how to be a plumber or a mechanic or anything else is not to memorize some 'body of knowledge' - not only would this knowledge be useful just a few years out of school, that approach to learning would render you an inflexible, and ultimately terrible, plumber or mechanic.

What the evidence tells us (if people would just look at it) is that becoming a plumber or a mechanic or whatever is to adopt, and embody, what Wittgenstein would call a form of life - a way of seeing the world, a way of looking at problems and learning solutions, a way of experimenting, communicating, imagining and thinking.

It's when we rely on an old set of 'best practices' that are anything but that we do the most damage to children and students. It's when we think we know, but do not, that we callously commit the most grievous damage.


  1. Excellent! I have been thinking along the same lines in terms of how "trades" professionals learn and continue to learn in their professions. Social in nature, always adapting on site and in the work flow.

    However, I will say that the 351 Cleveland is still my engine of choice:)

  2. Saying this "this is epic" is so 2009, but I have no other words.

    Epic. Thank you.

  3. I see a difference between being able to adopt a form of life or initiating a body of knowledge/best practice at any given time and maintaining, and maintaining that ever changing form/body/practice. I don't think either post considers this.

  4. "Doctors that simply follow procedure, no matter how "evidence-based", make the worst doctors. While there may be a great deal of similarity between one illness and the next, the reality is that every patient is different, and that the doctor has to make an evaluation based on the facts at hand."

    These are not the worst doctors because they follow evidence-based practices as closely as possible. The decisions that doctors make can still be based on sound research even when there are nuanced differences in this patient or that one. In fact, this type of doctor is the only kind of doctor who is truly upholding the Hippocratic oath. Now, it's fine for a doctor to say, "Here's the current best practice based on the research. However, I have been reading about a promising new practice that has not yet been fully vetted. I am willing to try this practice if this is something you want to risk but this is your decision as the patient to try an experiment . . . " Gut feelings are not a way to practice medicine. Doctors can often make decisions using years of experience and knowledge of the research, but when a doctor is ignorant then guessing is unethical unless there are truly no other options (e.g., life or death in the E.R. for some unusual circumstance).

    I also believe the above practice should apply to teachers as well. When teachers rely on gut instincts we end up with Brain Gym crap or Multiple Intelligence crap. We can do better.

    I suspect there is more agreement than not in this debate. We probably each have this specific scenario or that one where there is an exception to the rule, perhaps. But research-based practices are how we maximize our efforts and how we improve as a field.

  5. Yeah but Sean you're missing the point.

    Here you say:

    "Gut feelings are not a way to practice medicine. Doctors can often make decisions using years of experience and knowledge of the research, but when a doctor is ignorant then guessing is unethical unless there are truly no other options (e.g., life or death in the E.R. for some unusual circumstance)."

    This is quite right. Nobody is saying the doctor should practice medicine according to gut feeling.

    But what I *am* saying is that the doctor relies on "years of experience and knowledge of the research." And *not* some 'content' that constitutes the 'knowledge' of the domain.

    Nobody is arguing for 'gut instinct' teaching or medicine or whatever.

    The difference is between:

    - defining a discipline as composed as a set of 'facts' which are learning as the 'content' of an education in that discipline, and
    - defining a discipline as a 'practice' in which each case is difference and in which practitioners must (based on experience and training) come up with *new* approaches for each case, because each case is different.

  6. But nobody can practice purely based on the facts so that doctor or teacher or person cannot exist. I mean, when studies are conducted, each patient (or student) has a different body type and weight and medical history (and education background and ability and home life) . . . we are all unique. This is why we often replicate studies many times. So, when you use research-based practices, you must adapt to each unique scenario. This is the only way to implement research-based practices. So, anyone implementing research-based practices is adapting to a degree out of necessity. This is why I noted that there is more agreement between the sides of this debate than not. Part of the difference in agreement is just semantics, I suspect.

    When you say you want a doctor using constructivism, I read that as doctor who is learning practice based on their experiences and their ideas. You equate "ideas" with information and research, I suspect. Doug Johnson, on the other hand, is probably thinking more along the lines of ideas being closer to a gut feeling. This is why you're both correct in your own way. I don't tend to think of ideas as coming from research and I also think they're more along the lines of a gut feeling. But that doesn't make my interpretation any more right and your version more wrong. As long as we both agree that "years of experience and knowledge of the research" is what we want then we're really all on the same page, I think.

  7. "Doug Johnson, on the other hand, is probably thinking more along the lines of ideas being closer to a gut feeling. This is why you're both correct in your own way..."

    If Doug Johnson was thinking along these lines, he was not correct in any way, either in his interpretation of our position, or his response to it.

    If his understanding of our position was more accurate than your own, he was still not correct in his response to it.

    You can refer to "years of experience and knowledge of the research" but it seems very evident to me that you mean one sort of thing by that, and I mean something very different.

  8. Doug makes some fatal mistakes in his post, which I just now read apart from skimming your point by point quoting. Doug starts with "out of the box" thinking and dentists. You equate that to someone who doesn't ever change, which is a position that nobody is advocating. There is much current research on using lidocaine to locally numb the pain. This lidocaine has replaced the novocaine from when I was a kid. A dentist doesn't have to think outside of the box to now be using lidocaine and other research-based practices, for example. But I digress.

    Doug mentions not wanting pilots to learn using constructivism. I disagree with him just as you did. A piloting school could use some constructivism and some direct instruction and other methods just swell. He talks about accountants and engineers and how they are taught and this is where I agree wholeheartedly with you, Stephen. You're absolutely correct that these individuals can learn from constructivist instruction. Constructivism is not a bad way to learn and can work in many situations.

    However, Doug shifts to actual practice when he talks about hospitals and doctors and this is what caught my eye earlier when I made my first comment above. I shouldn't have even tried to paraphrase Doug's thinking now that I see he was just out of sorts from the start. He is now arguing something different than a classroom environment. I think you should have called him on this shift instead of engaging him using his incorrect parameters.

    I would have responded to him by explaining that constructivism is a philosophy of learning; not a philosophy of actual practice. In other words, using constructivism in medical practice (or real life practice) was never the intention; rather, it is a learning philosophy that teachers can use to help students grow. That is, we often advocate using constructivism in our teaching where we can act as the facilitator and the students work in an environment where they can make mistakes and learn from the mistakes and gain new knowledge, skills and understanding. The facilitator can provide the structure for the learning and gently nudge students back on track when needed, etc. A doctor practicing in a hospital with no teacher or facilitator around is no longer in a learning environment even though he or she may learn from various experiences. Was it okay to use some constructivism in training that doctor? Absolutely. But the debate about whether the doctor is now using constructivism in practice or not is erroneous. She's not, nor should she. She should be using the best research-based practices that are available and that doesn't mean that the professional doctor cannot deviate when it's necessary to accommodate the individual needs of the patient. Grow from your experiences but don't use your patients to create constructivist like learning experiences -- at least not without having an actual study and having patients who have provided consent after IRB approval, etc. Do the best practices based on current research as much as possible and use your expertise to know when you cannot easily generalize this study's findings or that one and make the appropriate modifications based on your expertise. That's not constructivism even though that's something different than just memorizing the facts and running with them. So I don't agree with Doug at all, but I think he also demonstrated a lack of understanding of constructivism . . . so he defeats himself before he even finishes his argument. ;~)

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  10. I'm commenting over here because every time I try to leave a comment on that blog it flakes out.

    I want every discipline, career, job, etc to use divergent thinking and creative problem solving as employees in those fiels approach their work. I don't think this should be the realm of our poets. I want plumbers, sanitation workers, police offers, accountants, teachers, and yes, doctors, to use methods such as design thinking to approach even the most mundane problems with new perspective and insights.

    I'm critical of the edtech community for a variety of reasons, but I think Doug is off base with his critique in his post. I appreciate the critical perspective that my colleagues bring to traditional, accepted technologies in our schools such as expensive textbooks that get little use, 45 minute bell schedules that do little for deep learning, a heavy emphasis in our schools in direct instruction, and meaningless homework assignments that dull student passion and creativity.

  11. Thanks for a fun post, Stephen. Some more ruminations here -

    With appreciation,
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  12. This piece was so refreshing I skipped my coffee this morning, many thanks.


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